Discover more from It Can Always Get Worse
The “Brown Scare”: Did America Overreact to Axis Spies and Supporters?
From at least 1939, two years before America’s entry into the Second World War, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) launched a wide-ranging campaign, political and legal, against sympathisers of the German Nazi, Italian Fascist, and Imperial Japanese governments within the United States and those who were, explicitly or implicitly, aligned with them. It was, in its essentials, a program to win over public opinion by constraining the space for pro-Nazi propaganda, while discrediting policies and ideas—and the people who espoused them—that objectively assisted the Axis cause by decreasing popular support for the war against it. The security benefit of this was obvious: it meant Axis enemy operatives inside the U.S. had less room for manoeuvre. The practical implementation of shrinking particularly the eco-system the Nazis could exploit was, however, controversial, because it involved targeting a broad swathe of FDR’s political opponents on the isolationist Right, notably those grouped around the America First Committee, who argued that they had noble motives for the policies they favoured, and even with the more overt pro-Nazi voices they could—and did—argue that their right to express their views was protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, making any government infringement outrageous. In time, critics would draw a parallel with the security and public messaging policies responding to the Communist threat after the two world wars, the so-called “Red Scares”, and label FDR’s campaign the “Brown Scare”. Just how fair is this comparison?
It Can Always Get Worse is a reader-supported publication. To receive notification of new posts, become a free subscriber. Consider becoming a paid subscriber to access all posts.
THE SHADOW OF THE GREAT WAR
The power of the isolationist tendency in America at the end of the 1930s was a result of the disappointments after the First World War. Isolationism is, of course, an old American tradition and the rallying cry of the 1930s isolationists, “America First”, was coined before the end of the Great War by Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, who used it as his campaign slogan against the Republicans in the November 1916 election. Wilson portrayed his opponents as careless warmongers, eager to get the U.S. into war in Europe. Five months later, Wilson’s hand was forced by Germany and the U.S. was at war anyway, just without any preparation. Nineteen months later, the Allies had prevailed.
In the wrangling that followed November 1918, Wilson mostly succeeded in imposing his doctrine of “national self-determination” over the ruins of the multinational Empires, but in March 1920—six months after Wilson had a massive stroke that incapacitated him—he was defeated in his attempt to get the Treaty of Versailles through the U.S. Senate, largely because it contained a provision to take the U.S. into the League of Nations. American hostility to supranationalism won out.
By 1923, with the settlement that Versailles had supposedly secured visibly breaking down, America lost patience, withdrawing the last of her troops from Europe. Americans came to embrace the myth that the excessive harshness of the Versailles Treaty had caused the breakdown; it did not matter that the reverse is the truth or that the Treaty was in any case never implemented. Soon, the American optimism that the New World had entered the war to redeem the Old gave way to a resentment that this Old World had “cheated [America] out of the fruits of victory”, as historian Gary Sheffield puts it. The logic of this view of what had gone wrong with “the peace” extended to a reframing of the entire engagement as one where idealistic America was tricked into war by cynical Europeans to be used by one side in a pointless dispute. The blame for this trickery was loaded onto British propagandists and/or bankers and arms manufacturers (“merchants of death”),1 in conspiracy theories that trended—as so often—towards ever-more explicit antisemitism.
The Senate Special Committee on Investigation of the Munitions Industry, known as the “Nye Committee” after its chairman, Republican Senator Gerald Nye from North Dakota, gave an official stamp to this bankers-and-arms-merchant thesis of the First World War, leading to the passage of the Neutrality Acts (1935 and 1936) as war loomed in Europe.
This was the sentiment—greatly influencing public support for appeasement, opposition to rearmament, and antagonism to preparations for war—FDR had to break in order to fulfil his duties to protect the country.
THE AMERICA FIRST COMMITTEE
FDR began his public campaign against the isolationists before the U.S. entered the Second World War. Conveniently, the isolationists gave the President an identifiable target, setting up the America First Committee (AFC) in September 1940, right as the Burke-Wadsworth Act was passed in Congress, instituting peacetime conscription for the first time. The AFC was to provide Roosevelt plenty of material to work with in its choice of members. Still, it was an uphill task. The AFC had 850,000 members at its height, about 0.6% of the population, which is very large for a civil society group, and, though there were signs of a growing determination to fight Hitler through 1941,2 the AFC probably reflected majority opinion in the country right up to Pearl Harbour in December 1941.
The most well-known AFC member at its founding was the industrialist Henry Ford. In 1920, a year after The Protocols of the Elders of Zion had appeared in English, Ford paid for the printing and distribution of half-a-million copies. A series of articles in one of Ford’s newspapers, based partly on the Protocols, were compiled into a well-selling book, The International Jew: The World’s Problem, which also celebrated America leading the way with eugenics and was, after being translated into German, read by Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, who singled Ford out by name for praise. Ford very publicly recanted his antisemitic views in 1927, but this was quite a lot of baggage for an executive committee member of an organisation being accused of having Nazi sympathies. Lessing Rosenwald, a prominent Jewish businessman, had joined the board of the AFC, scandalising many American Jews. Rosenwald tried protesting internally about Ford’s presence; the AFC was unmoved, and Rosenwald resigned in December 1940. Ford himself was forced to resign the next month because of the public relations damage he was doing.3 Ford would go on to help with America’s wartime production, though this was rather offset—morally, apart from anything else—by Ford continuing to operate factories producing Nazi war materiel, and his earlier role in building the industrial base of the Soviet Union.
After Charles Lindbergh joined the AFC in April 1941, he became its most prominent spokesman. Colonel Lindbergh, as he was known, had been a national figure since 1927, when he completed the first solo transatlantic flight, leading to him being given a Medal of Honour by President Calvin Coolidge, being made Time Magazine’s first “Man of the Year” in 1928, and to a rapid expansion of the aviation industry in the West. In 1932, Lindbergh gained national attention on possibly an even greater scale for the worst possible reason: his twenty-month-old son was kidnapped and murdered, leading to a new federal law. The attention was so overwhelming, Lindberg went into exile from 1936 until 1939, with one of his first stops being the Munich Olympics as a special guest of Hermann Göring, who awarded Lindbergh a State medal a few weeks before Kristallnacht that Lindbergh refused to give back, despite friends begging him to.
Upon returning to the U.S. in April 1939, Lindbergh threw himself into the effort to prevent America hindering the Nazis’ imperialism. Lindbergh’s reputation, already significantly diminished by his dalliance with the Nazi regime and his statements on “race” that tracked closely with Nazi ideology, would only diminish over the next year-and-a-half. He was a godsend for the Roosevelt administration. Lindbergh took some effort to avoid overt references to Jews, but it was plain enough to everyone what he was saying. As with all antisemites, eventually it took over entirely. On 11 September 1941, Lindbergh made a speech in Des Moines declaring that it was time to “name names”: “The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish, and the Roosevelt Administration. … Their greatest danger to this country lies in [the Jews’] large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.” Lindbergh’s attempts to caveat this—mentioning the “persecution [Jews] suffered in Germany” and claiming he was “not attacking either the Jewish or the British people. Both races, I admire”—naturally fell flat. His mother-in-law and sister-in-law both publicly distanced themselves from him, and many organisations cut their ties with him.
Lindberg accepted the need for war after Pearl Harbour, but only in the most reluctant manner and with a blame-America-first caveat, writing in his diary: “We have brought it on our own shoulders; but I can see nothing to do under these circumstances except to fight. If I had been in Congress, I certainly would have voted for a declaration of war” [italics added].
Another prominent AFC member was Father Charles Coughlin, a Canadian-born Roman Catholic priest based in Michigan who became well-known throughout the country during the Depression for his “populist” radio broadcasts. The popularity of Father Coughlin was partly because of the novelty of a priest on the radio, and talking politics at that, and partly because of his demagogic skill, able to shift between fire-and-brimstone rants against Communism and soft-spoken appeals for social justice on behalf of the little guy. Coughlin’s monologues might be described as sermons and were deeply infused with Catholicism, but they were remarkably free of theology. Coughlin had been an early supporter of FDR and the New Deal,4 which was not an unusual position for “populists”.5 Coughlin’s exhortation for rural Catholics to vote for FDR in 1932—”Roosevelt or Ruin!”, he had thundered—was clearly thought by FDR to have been important, since the President invited Coughlin to lunch. Coughlin broke spectacularly with FDR in the 1936 election, not least because one of FDR’s first acts had been establishing diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. Coughlin declared: “This is our last election. It is Fascism or Communism. We are at the crossroads. I take the road to Fascism.” Coughlin turned ever-more brazenly to antisemitism after this. But Coughlin’s star continued to rise, reaching its peak in 1938, when Coughlin had more than twenty million listeners, only about one-third of them Catholics.
The NGO Coughlin ran became the Christian Front in 1938, the same year Coughlin used his periodical, Social Justice, to serialise the Protocols. The references to Jews—heretofore semi-disguised by talking about “money changers on Wall Street” and “international bankers”—only got more explicit. In one speech the same year, Coughlin said: “When we get through with the Jews of America, they’ll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing.” Coughlin spoke admiringly of Hitler and the Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, whose corporatist autocracy Coughlin favoured as the ideal system, despite its anti-Christian character. Unsurprisingly, Coughlin had been a great fan of Huey Long, the Democratic Senator from Louisiana, one of the most famous demagogues in the country, who was assassinated in office in September 1935. Coughlin’s church, the National Shrine of the Little Flower, began to be mocked as “the National Shrine of the Little Führer”.
The beginning of the end of Coughlin’s place in mainstream society was a radio broadcast ten days after Kristallnacht in November 1938. Coughlin made a pro-forma condemnation of the “persecution suffered by thousands of innocent Jews”, but was keen to present it as retaliation for a German diplomat being assassinated by a Polish Jew. Downplaying the antisemitic nature of the Hitler government, Coughlin presents Nazism as a response—albeit an “unjust” one—to Communism, and ‘deniably’ blames Jews for Communism, actually citing Nazi documents to ‘prove’ that Jews dominate the Soviet leadership. (As Coughlin became less cautious in the years after this, he would frequently use the phrase “Judeo-Bolshevik threat”.) Coughlin claimed Nazism could only be defeated by uprooting Communism and unless “Jewish leaders” helped in this project—by using their apparent great power in the media and finance—to “repudiate vigorously atheistic Communism and its followers”, then Nazi-style reactions would arise all over the place and Jews would suffer more. Coughlin was immediately denounced on all sides, most importantly by Cardinal George Mundelein, the Archbishop of Chicago, who said Coughlin does not “represent the doctrine or sentiments of the Church”, which was entirely true: the Roman Church was, from the first to the last, the bitterest opponent of the Nazi regime and Pope Pius XII conspired in multiple attempts to assassinate the Führer.6 Listenership to Coughlin’s show dwindled, but never dropped below around ten million.
In December 1938, Coughlin published an article in Social Justice that was basically an (uncredited) reprint of Goebbels’ speech to the 1935 Nuremberg rally, and, at the time of the Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939, Coughlin incited “an army of peace” to march on Washington to prevent FDR violating the Neutrality Acts by helping any of Nazism’s victims.
Coughlin became associated with the AFC at its founding in late 1940 and Social Justice encouraged support for the organisation.7 By this time, the government had already taken significant measures to limit Coughlin’s influence, which we will get to below. In July 1941, Coughlin withdrew his support for the AFC over differences with the AFC leader General Robert E. Wood.
The above-mentioned Senator Nye was, of course, a strong supporter of the AFC, its most senior Republican. Nye was obsessed with the idea foreign-born Jews controlled Hollywood and were making films designed to push America into war with the Nazis. Not even Nye’s claim to have “splendid Jewish friends” protected him from press criticism for his antisemitic ramblings. Senator Burton Wheeler of Montana was the most prominent Democrat in the AFC. Wheeler, a populist who initially welcomed FDR’s election, was a potential Presidential candidate in 1940 and played a key role in giving mainstream legitimacy to Nazi-sympathetic extremists.8 Wheeler might have given more voice to anti-British sentiment than antisemitism, but he was no less clear about the latter—there is a picture of him giving a Nazi salute on stage at Madison Square Garden alongside novelist Kathleen Norris (another AFCer). During the debate over Lend-Lease in the spring of 1941, Wheeler infamously said the bill “will plough under every fourth American boy”, something denounced by FDR as “the damnedest thing said in a generation”.
Nye and Wheeler were joined by John Flynn, a journalist and chairman of the AFC’s New York branch, in setting up the Senate Investigation into Motion Picture War Propaganda in August 1941. The “investigation”, which only lasted two months before FDR’s supporters in Congress strangled its funds, operated on the theory that Hollywood was producing films—like Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), The Great Dictator (1940), the Ronald Reagan-led Murder in the Air (1940), and A Yank in the RAF (1941)—as part of a British conspiracy to drag America into war. (Ironically, no institution had done more than Hollywood to foster American isolationism in the 1930s, only shifting at the very end of the decade.9) The suspected collaborators in this plot were named on the Senate floor; they were overwhelmingly Jewish. Flynn went on to be the first purveyor of the conspiracy theory that FDR knew about Pearl Harbour and let it happen so he could have his war.
One of Wheeler’s close allies, Senator David Walsh, a Democrat from Massachusetts, had joined in the attempt to add the sentence, “We will not participate in foreign wars and we will not send our army or navy or air force to fight in foreign lands outside of the Americas”, to the 1940 Democratic platform, which FDR accepted—with the addition, “except in case of attack”.10 It was inevitable Walsh would join the AFC. Walsh, a devout Roman Catholic and strongly anti-British, was a great fan of Father Coughlin and a subscriber to Social Justice. If Walsh is remembered at all now it is usually for being embroiled in a sensational scandal, first made public in May 1942, involving his frequenting a homosexual brothel in Brooklyn infiltrated by Nazi spies.
The AFC could also count among its number Republican Senator Henrik Shipstead of Minnesota, an ardent proselytiser for the Protocols and, unsurprisingly, a public supporter of Henry Ford in his antisemitic phase and of Father Coughlin, and Joseph Kennedy, the father of President John F. Kennedy, who was at one point invited to replace General Wood as overall AFC leader. Kennedy Senior was friends with Coughlin and, as a Catholic, looked to the priest for advice; they saw eye-to-eye on “the Jewish Question”. Kennedy’s sympathies for Hitler and hostility to Britain was so overt he had to be recalled as ambassador in London in October 1940.
Even more overt in their support for Hitler was Laura Ingalls. Swept up in the excitement after Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, Ingalls had become a pilot and set a dazzling series of records for stunts (e.g., the most consecutive loops in an airplane) and flights (notably her 1934 flight to Chile low over the Andes, for which she was given the Harmon Trophy). This was obviously all the more eye-catching in the era because Ingalls was a woman, and she became a national “celebrity”. In September 1939, Ingalls flew over the National Mall to the White House, dropping 5,000 leaflets reading: “Never before in history have American women been so aroused and determined to keep their country out of war.” At AFC rallies, Ingalls quoted from Mein Kampf and regularly gave the Nazi salute: her claim this was a “purely American” gesture, annexed from the Native Indians, did not convince many.
The AFC, Lindbergh specifically, was instrumental in setting up the No Foreign Wars Committee (NFWC) around the same time as the AFC itself. The NFWC was put together and funded by the openly pro-Nazi oil magnate William Rhodes Davis and led by Verne Marshall, a supposed “investigative journalist”.11 Lindbergh’s involvement with the NFWC was brief: as has always been the case, the far-Right is highly fractious, and Lindbergh fell out with Marshall. The NFWC effectively ceased to exist many months before Pearl Harbour.
It might be slightly harsh to call the AFC the Nazi-Soviet Pact in miniature, nonetheless this Red-Brown alliance was important to the operational core of the outfit until the breakdown of the real Pact, with Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. On instructions from Moscow, the Communists turned on a dime from being ardent anti-warriors to being ardent interventionists. This was a significant loss for the AFC, not only weakening its organisational capacities, as the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) operatives were removed from its ranks, but these highly disciplined cadres and their fellow travellers were now exerted against the AFC.12 The CPUSA’s organisational prowess, so notable in the inter-war civil rights movement, was due to the fact that it was, like all the “fraternal” Parties around the world, an integrated component of the Soviet intelligence apparat, funded and wholly controlled from Moscow. From the mid-1930s, the CPUSA had an impact on American politics out of all proportion to its small formal membership because of its influence over the labour unions, a powerful element of the ruling New Deal coalition, and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party that included the President and his senior advisers.13 This segment of the Left was now drawn away from the AFC, further isolating the isolationists within the U.S. political spectrum.
The AFC formally disbanded itself on 11 December 1941, four days after the Pearl Harbour attack and the day Hitler declared war on America, which was responded to hours later with a U.S. war declaration against Germany.
THE HOUSE UN-AMERICAN ACTIVITIES COMMITTEE
For many, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) will forever be associated with the word “McCarthyism”, though it self-evidently had nothing to do with Senator Joseph McCarthy. HUAC was the setting in 1948 for the first major confrontation in the campaign to undo the public perceptions fostered during the war that the Soviet Union was presided over by the friendly “Uncle Joe”, and to begin repairing the damage done by the staggering scale of infiltration by Soviet agents into the U.S. government under the cover of the wartime “Grand Alliance”.14
All that was in the future, however. HUAC in the form that it would exist until 1975 was founded in May 1938,15 led by Representative Martin Dies, a Texas Democrat, hence HUAC often being known as the “Dies Committee” in this era, with a mandate to investigate totalitarian subversion, Left and Right. The Sudetenland crisis that resulted in the Munich agreement of 30 September 1938 and the Kristallnacht pogrom six weeks later had caused a stir in American public opinion, concretising the Nazi threat in a way it had not been previously.16 The shocking 20 February 1939 rally of 20,000 people at Madison Square Garden, orchestrated by the overt American branch of the Nazi Party, the German American Bund,17 run out of Manhattan by Fritz Kuhn,18 and Germany’s total occupation of Czechoslovakia the next month furthered this. Indeed, a sign of the changed mood was that the counter-protests to the Bund’s display in New York City were larger than what the Nazis could muster—and when the scene devolved into violence, this redounded politically entirely against the Bund.
It was in this context that HUAC’s focus was overwhelmingly on Nazism. HUAC’s operations, starting no later than the spring of 1939, was the onset of what some call “the Brown Scare”. One of the early figures hauled before HUAC to answer for his political beliefs, activities, associations, and loyalties—and to have these exposed to the nation, as hostile Congressmen quizzed him—was Donald Shea, an antisemitic activist, head of the White Shirts and more prominently the National Gentile League, which had gained some attention a year earlier for trying to organise a boycott of Edward G. Robinson and likeminded movie actors after Robinson called for a boycott of German-made goods.19
In June 1939, General George Van Horn Moseley, a 64-year-old who had retired the previous September, was subpoenaed before HUAC to be questioned about accusations of antisemitism and wanting to establish a fascist-style government in America. The General, having acquired a reputation for outlandish statements like wanting refugees sterilised at the border, declared his support for the Bund and for vigilante militia organisations as the “anti-toxin for the disease of Communism”. Moseley, as The New York Times reported, “denied that he was antisemitic, [while he also] asserted that a Jewish-led Communist revolution was being plotted in the United States”. Most of the session was taken up with Moseley demanding he be allowed to read a 12,000-word statement; he was eventually allowed time for one-third of it, which “proved to be chiefly a discussion of the alleged Jewish influence in American affairs”, according to the Times. Unconvinced of the relevance of this to the issue of subversion, HUAC refused to enter it into the record.
The Bund, as a virtually undisguised agency of the Nazi government engaged in propaganda-recruitment activity, became an especial target of HUAC. Kuhn was dragged before HUAC twice in August 1939 (and then again in October), all while a financial prosecution was run against him (see below). As Representative Dies was concluding the main phase of HUAC’s work on the Bund, he started in on William Dudley Pelley and his Silver Legion,20 which was founded the day after Hitler became German Chancellor in 1933. Pelley’s followers, known as “Silver Shirts” or “SS”, directly emulated the paramilitary-type structure of the Brownshirts. Pelley had been a journalist and writer, of short stories and Hollywood screenplays, until a near-death experience in 1928. After that, Pelley got involved in the occult and tried—in a manner not dissimilar to what the Nazis tried in Germany—to wed this to a racialised version of Protestantism he called “Liberation Doctrine” that stressed its hostility to Jews, Communists, and Roman Catholicism. The Silver Legion’s membership peaked at 15,000 around 1936, the year Pelley created the “Christian Party” to challenge FDR for the Presidency. As the Silver Shirts declined after 1939, Pelley would draw closer to the Bund.21
The Silver Shirts’ decline and ultimate extinction began in 1939 because of HUAC. Soon after Dies began work on the Silver Shirts, he became aware of an effort to infiltrate HUAC by one Frasier Gardner, an employee of Pelley’s Skyland Press. (Though nobody knew it at the time, this was not unprecedented: one of the two chairmen of the Committee that HUAC was based on, Democratic Representative Samuel Dickstein of New York, had been recruited by the Soviets.) Telegrams between Gardner and Pelley were soon in HUAC’s possession. Dies could have just leaked this to the press, but he wanted a more dramatic spectacle than that—and he got it. Gardner was brought before HUAC and paid out enough rope to hang himself. Under mild questioning, not sensing any danger, Gardner claimed he had “nothing to do with Pelley”. Dies then brought out the telegrams. Gardner was imprisoned for perjury. Dies declared himself shocked at the apparent attempt to infiltrate his Committee. Pelley very foolishly tried to sue Dies for defamation; the case was thrown out, but it served to keep Pelley’s name in the press as the Nazis and the Soviets began the Second World War in Europe. It also provided the hook for Dies to argue that the only way to clear all this up was for Pelley to testify.22 And here began Pelley’s downfall.
Summoned to appear before HUAC in August 1939, Pelley refused, then “disappeared”. The federal government was wary of appearing heavy-handed by laying direct hands on Pelley until after Pearl Harbour, so it was left to HUAC, which immediately began a financial investigation of Pelley’s publishing outfits, noting that a lot of their content was lifted directly from Nazi propaganda materials, something stressed at length in multiple HUAC hearings, leading to Pelley being referred to the FBI to investigate if he was an unregistered German agent. Pelley, who had his own flare for the dramatic, quite suddenly appeared in Washington, D.C., in January 1940 and attended HUAC, where he rejected claims he was linked to Nazi Germany and denied—truthfully, for once—the claims made in a series of forged letters that he was working in cahoots with Dies (many liberal Democrats at the time thought HUAC spent too much time on Communist subversion). Pelley then praised Dies’ work and made the strange “offer” that he would disband the Legion if HUAC spent more time on the Communist file.23
Pelley left town as abruptly as he had appeared, to avoid extradition to North Carolina, where he was wanted on charges related to financial “irregularities” at one of his presses in 1934. Pelley went to Indiana to forge an alliance with the local Ku Klux Klan.24 Pelley would try to continue his isolationist and pro-Nazi activism: he continued writing and his Silver Shirts got involved with the America First Committee (AFC). But his legal troubles kept mounting, and his political troubles became severely oppressive. Pelley was hounded by HUAC investigations during this period of “internal exile”: his finances were picked over and his reputation shredded; his every move was held up to public scrutiny and his record—such as saying “the time has come for an American Hitler” in 1935—was repeatedly raked up in hearings.25 In late 1940, Pelley, trying to appease HUAC—he specifically presented it as his side of the “deal” he had offered HUAC in January—formally disbanded the Silver Legion.26
In October 1939, HUAC turned to the Deutscher Fichte-Bund (DFB), based in Hamburg. Oscar Pfaus, the head of the American, Canadian, and Irish sections of the DFB, had lived in Chicago in the 1930s and even joined the American military. Pfaus was openly pro-Nazi throughout this period and was recruited by Abwehr (German military-intelligence) no later than 1939, given the codename STIER (BULL). Pfaus was important in deepening the Nazi relationship with the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and Pfaus was tasked with trying to establish a Nazi foothold among the Irish-American population, which Berlin hoped to use against the British, and making connections with useful individuals. One of Pfaus’ contacts was University of Washington student, Richard T. Forbes, who was encouraged to write antisemitic articles and to disrupt the lectures of Harold Laski, a British, Jewish, openly pro-Soviet Marxist economist—a near-perfect target for the Nazis.27 Another was Anna Bogenholm Sloane, a Swedish-American artist in New York.
Pfaus’ letters to Sloane were made public by HUAC. One plan Sloane had was to establish a pro-Nazi newspaper, The National American Patriot, to be edited by one James Philip Gaffney, said to be “ideal” because of his “Irish-American connections”. Sloane wanted the newspaper to form the centre of a web of “patriotic movements in the United States for the purpose of recovering our country from control of the Jews”. This network would be overseen by a “council of twelve leaders”, including the most prominent antisemitic agitators in the country: William Pelley, Father Coughlin, Donald Shea, General Moseley, Fritz Kuhn, the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (r. 1922-39) Hiram Wesley Evans, the leader of the American Fascists George W. Christians, the zealot segregationist Protestant evangelist (and enthusiastic early FDR supporter28) Gerald Burton Winrod, and the activist-journalists James B. True (campaigning since the 1931 Scottsboro case to “warn” America that the Jews were using African-Americans as the spear-tip of subversion), Harry A. Jung (editor of the Chicago-based The American Gentile), and Dr. Edward Hunter.
As Representative Dies summarised: “The Nazis cooperate with all organisations promoting racial hatred, just as the Communists cooperate with all organisations promoting class hatred.” HUAC’s work would proceed on this premise and while many Americans found it laudable, many did not. Supporters of the Nazi government, their fellow travellers, and those in the broader isolationist movement that felt their own political positions and objectives were being attacked objected. Civil libertarians had their usual principled objections to the State stigmatising any set of political values, and to pacifists a Western government inhibiting the operations of a totalitarian power by defending itself in any way will always be seen as a dangerous drive to war.29 There was also partisan politics: many Republicans accused HUAC of being a Democratic stich-up, meant to sway the 1940 election in FDR’s favour.30
HUAC played an important part in one of FDR’s wartime policies that has received general condemnation among historians and the broader public: Japanese internment. As early as July 1941, HUAC was airing allegations that people of Japanese descent on the West Coast were involved espionage and sabotage on Tokyo’s behalf, alleging the conspiracy involved the Sakura baseball team, Japanese language schools, and a Buddhist temple that shared a post box with a Japanese veterans’ group. The “evidence” aired by Representatives Dies and his colleagues on this subject showed up in the February-March 1942 hearings of the House Select Committee Investigating National Defense Migration (“Tolan Committee”), notably the testimony of Earl Warren, running at the time to be Governor of California and later the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (r. 1953-69); in the April 1943 Final Report issued by General John Dewitt, the official overseeing the internment process; and the June 1943 Supreme Court decision, Hirabayashi v. United States, which upheld the legality of curfews being imposed on a minority when the U.S. was at war with their country of origin.31 The Tolan Committee hearings, in particular, were important in solidifying the nascent swing in public opinion against Japanese residents: Americans’ initial reaction to Pearl Harbour, urged by the newspapers and government officials, was an acceptance that Japanese-origin citizens were as loyal as anyone else; this only began to change about two months later when elite discourse started stressing the security dangers of this potential “fifth column” in so sensitive an area.32
The story of Japanese internment is now told through a purely racial lens, in line with contemporary sensibilities and political fashions. There can be no doubt there was a racialist element in the public and official reaction, but this story severs the decision from its proper context, which was within the broader framework of the security campaign against Axis sympathisers and agents as America went to war.
FDR’s 19 February 1942 Executive Order 9066 authorised the Secretary of War to “prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded”. The initial forced relocation effects of the exclusion zones—in Arizona, Hawaii, California, Oregon, and Washington State—fell mostly on people of German and Italian heritage, citizens and non-citizens. Japanese-ancestry people were allowed to remain in place, subject to curfews and other restrictions. The same was true of the initial wave of internment, which applied not only to suspected enemy aliens within the U.S., but the mostly German population deported to U.S. camps from fifteen Latin American States. (These deportees totalled 6,600 people in the end, including Italians and Japanese.)
At the end of March 1942, the shift occurred that led to the internment of about 85% of the ethnic Japanese population present in the U.S., more than 100,000 people, two-thirds of them citizens. This contrasts with about 11,500 ethnic Germans and 3,000 Italians, large proportions of them non-citizens, who were interred, out of populations with German and Italian heritage that were much larger. The policy was a wild over-reaction and, again, racial prejudice undoubtedly had a role in shaping the thinking of the Roosevelt administration,33 but the conscious reason for this disproportion was far more geographic than racial: the 20,000 Japanese-heritage people living in the interior of the country, away from the West Coast zone considered Japan’s likely attack point, were not interred. German- and Italian-origin people did not live in such a concentrated bloc and were, therefore, not seen to pose the same kind of security threat; the State judged that it could be more targeted in the restrictions and internment of potentially threatening members of those populations. As just one example of security, not racial, considerations governing the exclusion of people from certain areas: the German-American Gentile League leader Donald Shea was barred from entering four military zones on the East Coast in October 1943 and effectively deported to the Midwest.
SUPPRESSION OF NAZI SPIES, SYMPATHISERS, AND ENABLERS
The Roosevelt administration’s handling of the National Socialist side of the Axis fifth column might have been more targeted than what was done on the Japan side, but it was very wide-ranging. And unlike the post-war crackdown on Communist infiltration, where the worst that happened was the loss of jobs, the U.S. government’s anti-Nazi campaign during the war inflicted direct legal sanctions on essentially every visible pro-Nazi spokesman, and managed—by hook or by crook—to imprison most of them.
With HUAC preparing the atmospherics—helped by the release on 6 May 1939 of the first overtly anti-Nazi movie, Confessions of a Nazi Spy—the obvious starting point for government action was the Bund. The Bund membership of probably 20,000 fell off swiftly to not more than 8,000 by 1940. The Bund showing people what they were at Madison Square Garden began the decline, but the State left nothing to chance. The government sought a way to destabilise the Bund’s leadership and found it in Fritz Kuhn’s corruption. The Bund, adhering to the Führerprinzip, had intention of moving against Kuhn when it discovered he had stolen $14,000 ($250,000 in today’s money) of party funds, but the New York prosecutors, acting at the behest of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, a very close ally of FDR’s, had already begun a politically targeted audit of the Bund’s finances and with a raid on the Bund’s offices, under the legal cover of this investigation, discovered the evidence they needed.34 Kuhn was arrested and indicted on 25 May 1939 near Allentown. Kuhn, out on bail, was arrested again—on petty charges of being drunk and using profane language—on 16 July, and was subpoenaed to appear before HUAC three times, 16 and 17 August and 19 October,35 where his writings in favour of Hitler and connections to likeminded Americans were elaborately documented for the public.36 Kuhn’s corruption trial concluded in December 1939, and he was imprisoned for grand larceny, tax evasion, and forgery.
Kuhn was not left alone after this. On 1 June 1943, while Kuhn was still in Sing Sing, he was stripped of his citizenship via a creative interpretation of the naturalisation laws permitted under the Nationality Act of October 1940. The court ruled that Kuhn was lying about having no “mental reservation” when he took the oath of allegiance, since his political views meant he could not have been sincere about joining the American “melting pot”, and his “membership of … the Bund is sufficient” to prove this, given that the group accepted only ethnic Germans. Kuhn being part of the Bund was held to further demonstrate that his loyalty had never shifted from his homeland to America because the Bund was a front group for the Nazi government. Kuhn was released from prison on 18 June 1943, and the State used another piece of fast legal footwork to re-arrest him three days later as an enemy alien, interring him at a camp in Texas until September 1945, when he was deported to West Germany—where his travails still didn’t end. The new German government brought charges under the de-Nazification system and Kuhn went back to prison between July 1947 and February 1949, interrupted only by a brief escape in June 1948.37
The State was relentless in preventing the Bundist leadership reconsolidating, and just generally disrupting the organisation’s functioning. Kuhn was succeeded by Gerhard Kunze, the Bund publicity director (Kuhn’s Goebbels). Kunze, a Native American, was responsible for the (distinctly unconvincing) Kuhn speeches that claimed the Bund did not derive its doctrines from the German Nazis but from the “real” Americans, the Indians.38 While Bund mounted a public campaign casting Kuhn as the victim of a Jewish conspiracy, in private it revoked Kuhn’s membership and Kunze tried to assert himself as Bundesführer. There were internal problems: Kunze was not a commanding presence and the Kuhn-loyal faction was bitter the Bund did not pursue a legal appeal to release him.39 The external problems, meanwhile, were overwhelming.
Kunze’s lack of charisma and weakness as a leader was exposed for all to see when he was browbeaten before HUAC on 1 October 1940: his very muted performance was a striking contrast, within the Bund and without, to the combative show Kuhn had put on a year earlier.40 Kunze tried to make up for this personal deficiency with institutional strength, improving the Bund’s internal security screening and making over the Bund’s image as more “mainstream”: antisemitism would be played down and the celebration of Hitler’s birthday would be private; the public issues would be the allegedly-infringed rights of German-Americans and the need to stay out of the European war.41 This would allow the Bund to establish links with the America First Committee, which was wary of publicly embracing overtly pro-Nazi groups, though took no effort to establish hard firewalls against them—unsurprisingly, given the views of the AFC leadership. When the government raided and closed down the Bund’s headquarters, Camp Nordland in New Jersey, on 31 May 1941, a diary entry was discovered reading: “[AFC leader Charles] Lindbergh will take command of the United States when Hitler wins.” This did nothing for the image either of the Bund or the AFC.
Over the summer of 1941, the Bund had been subject to increasing legal restrictions on its activities in multiple States and the social environment had become so hostile that Bund fronts in disguises as innocuous as gymnastics societies and singing troupes risked popular violence.42 Meanwhile, the Bund’s finances were paralysed by the federal government freezing its bank accounts, leaving it unable to stage even small protests or print pamphlets. The Bundists rejected Kunze’s attempt to resign in August 1941,43 so he suddenly fled to Mexico in November 1941. The Bund now retroactively decided they had removed Kunze for his disturbing lack of faith and appointed George Froboese, one of Kunze’s deputies, as their American Führer. It was all too late, though: the Bund had ceased effectively functioning months earlier and when Pearl Harbour hit the leadership voted to disband in the immediate future. The decision was taken out of their hands: on 11 December 1941, Treasury agents raided the Bund’s headquarters and seized all of its records.44 In June 1942, both Kunze and Froboese were indicted as part of a Nazi espionage ring: Froboese killed himself and Kunze went into the dock, a story we will get to shortly.
Similar tactics to those used against Kuhn were mobilised against the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, which had begun after the Birth of a Nation movie in 1915. Hiram Evans was replaced as KKK “Imperial Wizard” by James A. Colescott on 10 June 1939: his decision to identify the Klan with the Bund damaged an already waning brand, and Klan actions, like its public agitation in Detroit ahead of the June 1943 race riot, compounded the damage. The potential Nazi-Klan alliance brought attention from HUAC, which launched an investigation focused on “Grand Dragon” Arthur Hornbui Bell in 1940. In January 1942, Colescott made another error, compiling and circulating ninety-six of Henry Ford’s old antisemitic essays: Ford had repudiated these and threatened to sue the Klan. HUAC “pounced”, as we would now say. Colescott was brought before HUAC ten days later, on 22 January. While Colescott did find some sympathetic Congressmen to lob him softballs, Representative Dies remonstrated with Colescott for the Klan’s anti-Catholicism, de facto accused him of terrorism, and wrung from Colescott the humiliating admission the Klan had only 10,000 members left.45 On 23 April 1944, the second KKK was put out of commission by the U.S. government using the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to claim back-taxes dating to the 1920s. “The Klan is dead”, as Colescott told reporters after a “Klonvocation” in Atlanta.46 (The Klan would spring up in a third version under Samuel Green in 1946, which still nominally exists today, but the KKK’s back was broken in the 1960s by a combination of HUAC’s determined public campaign against it and the covert counter-intelligence program or COINTELPRO by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.)
The same month Pfaus’ subversive efforts were exposed by HUAC, October 1939, saw the first steps against Father Coughlin. Eleven months after Coughlin’s post-Kristallnacht speech, his ability to talk about the issues he wanted to was hampered under a new law on “controversial public issues”, which meant radio stations could be fined for content the State disapproved of, an early example of the measures the Roosevelt administration took to limit the spread of the Nazi message. Coughlin admitted defeat in September 1940, quitting his syndicated show (though continuing on his own), writing in Social Justice he had been subjected to “virtual censorship”, which indeed he had: all that he had said was protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution, but the State had used its influence—directly and by setting the moral tone—to damage the reputation and restrict the speech of somebody who was sympathetic to the enemy and working to strengthen its cause domestically. Nor did the State stop until Coughlin was fully quieted.
Pearl Harbour was to be the death knell for Coughlin’s agitprop. In early April 1942, Attorney General Francis Biddle had begun a federal grand jury investigation into Coughlin; at the end of that month, the government invoked the 1917 Espionage Act to ban the distribution of Coughlin’s Social Justice periodical through the mail. And in May 1942, Coughlin’s radio career ended entirely ostensibly by an order of the Roman Church, which threatened to defrock him if he refused. In reality, Biddle had worked behind the scenes to help orchestrate this: “The whole point of the arrangement was to avoid a trial”.47 Coughlin’s reputation was further damaged in 1944, when one of his protégés, Martin Monti, defected from the U.S. Air Force and joined the SS.
In January 1940, before Father Coughlin had been banished from national radio, the FBI arrested seventeen members of Coughlin’s Christian Front in Brooklyn, the best-known being John F. Cassidy. FBI Director Hoover personally announced the roundup, declaring the detainees were to be charged with a seditious conspiracy to overthrow the government and planning terrorist attacks, some to be targeted at Jews. Only the former charges were actually in the indictment and in 1941 the case collapsed. The evidence was strong that the group had been gathering weapons and suggestive that they had been engaged in military-type training in the forest; their support for the Nazi cause was clear. But to the jury, the idea this bunch of misfits even could have planned a coup against the government was fantastical. Nonetheless, the public trial discredited the whole Christian Front in the eyes of the public, showing them to be a clique of pathetic, Nazi-supporting weirdos who hated the country that gave them shelter.48 Even Coughlin publicly distanced himself from his creation.
As risible as the Christian Front appeared, however, the idea they posed no danger is a retrospective judgment, true precisely because timely, effective State measures were taken to destroy it in its infancy. Later historians are persuasive that the Brooklyn chapter really did intend to overthrow the government, albeit their plot hinged on the genuinely fantastical—to collaborate with Jews and Communists to get them to launch the Revolution the Front believed they were eternally planning, at which point the Front and the National Guard would step in to take over. We would call this “accelerationism” now.
More menacing, and undetected at the time, the leader of the Front’s Boston chapter, Francis Moran, a devotee of Coughlin’s, was recruited as a Nazi spy in 1940. Moran’s handler at the German Consulate was Herbert Scholz, a “diplomat” who was in fact an SS officer close to Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler. The Nazi government intended to use the Christian Front for political warfare: Moran’s large audience was significantly comprised of Irish Catholics, a vital voting bloc in Massachusetts, and Berlin hoped to stoke anti-British resentments among them to strengthen the anti-war movement and keep America from doing anything to obstruct the Nazi war machine. Doubtless military training for sabotage and other activities would have accompanied this. Moran screened Nazi films and spread rumours about terrible conditions in the U.S. Army to discourage enlistment, claiming inter alia that Jews were supplying soldiers with tainted food, and Catholic soldiers were being served meat on Fridays, while Jews were allowed time off for Passover. Still, Moran began to struggle in 1941 thanks to some clever counter-agitation in Boston, partly orchestrated by British intelligence. Moran, though never caught for his treason, was finished after Pearl Harbour.
The traction Moran’s enemies in Boston got was indicative of a definite change in mood, especially in certain geographic areas and industries. The film industry, to be fair to it, had been consistently, openly hostile to the Nazis and since 1939 had become supportive of some kind of intervention, hence their clashes with Senator Nye. Hollywood did not, therefore, need instructions from the Roosevelt administration to move against Lillian Gish, one of the most prominent actresses in America, whose guilt over actively supporting American involvement in the First World War and perceiving it to have been a mistake, plus her partisan Republicanism, led her to a firm isolationist opposition to FDR and joining the America First Committee. Gish was an immense attraction for the AFC: except for Lindbergh, with whom she became friendly, she was the only real “celebrity”. Around the time of Gish’s national radio address in April 1941, she was blacklisted. Unable to find work for months, the executives then offered Gish a major movie contract in the summer—if she quit the AFC. Having to support her mother and sister, Gish accepted the terms, resigned from the AFC, and was soon back at work.49
The biggest Nazi spy ring was broken up in New York on 28 June 1941, less than a week after the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The leader of the network was Fritz Duquesne, a Boer born in South Africa in 1877, who was a German spy by the time the Boers began their war against the British Empire in 1899. During that war, Duquesne had tried to assassinate the British commander, Lord Kitchener, and would claim credit for directing the German U-Boat that murdered then-War Secretary Kitchener in June 1916. Duquesne had been part of the German sabotage teams in the U.S. during the First World War and was arrested for crimes including murder in the U.S. in 1917, but managed to escape; he slipped through the police’s grasp again after being re-arrested for his crimes in 1932. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Duquesne set about creating an intelligence apparatus in the U.S. to steal technological and military secrets, and to carry out large-scale terrorist attacks against industrial and other targets. The German-born American citizen William Sebold (“Harry Sawyer”), who was coerced into becoming an Abwehr agent in September 1939 during a visit to Germany, was assigned to the Duquesne spy ring and arrived in New York on 8 February 1940. By May 1940, Sebold had voluntarily become an FBI mole, allowing the Bureau to map the network, track its activities, like stockpiling dynamite and planning fires at factories, and sending fabricated radio messages back to Berlin. Once Hoover’s FBI had enough evidence for a conviction, it arrested all thirty-three of Duquesne’s associates, dealing a devastating blow to the Nazi espionage apparatus in America. They were all convicted in two rounds of trials in September and December 1941, and sentenced on 2 January 1942.
Five weeks later, the FBI rolled up another Nazi spy ring. This case took rather more work than the Duquesne case—or those that were to follow. The Bureau began with two pieces of information. First, British intelligence in Bermuda intercepted—and naturally passed to the cousins—German communications, in invisible ink, showing there was an important Nazi agent on U.S. territory, JOE K. Second, a bizarre incident in New York City, on 18 March 1941: two men had jaywalked in Times Square and one had been run over and killed. The survivor grabbed the dead man’s briefcase and fled. The body was found with a Spanish passport identifying him as “Don Julio Lopez Lido”, despite all the other documents in his possession being in German, including a notebook with U.S. soldiers’ names in. “Lido’s” Taft Hotel room contained maps and articles on military equipment. The connection between these two data points was made when the FBI detected JOE K reporting to his superiors on the death of “Senor Lido”. “Lido” transpired to be an Abwehr officer, Captain Ulrich von der Osten, who had landed in the U.S.—via Japan, notably—in February 1941, and JOE K was Kurt Ludwig, a German citizen and Abwehr agent since at least the time of the Anschluss, who was sent to the U.S. to establish an espionage network in March 1940. Ludwig had been entrusted because he was born in the U.S. in 1903, returned to Germany in 1909, and then lived in the U.S. again from 1925 until, very tellingly, 1933, at a moment when many were fleeing Germany. Berlin thus judged Ludwig’s cultural know-how in navigating America and his ideological loyalty solid. Ludwig found his recruits primarily among the Bundists, attending their meetings in New York and basically cold pitching them.50 Ludwig fled New York after Osten’s death, to Montana, and then Cle Elum in Washington State, where he was arrested on 3 August 1941. Nine members of Ludwig’s network had been convicted by March 1942. The network’s chief financier, Teodore Erdmann Erich Lau (BILL), a German-born Argentine, was arrested in New York in October 1946 and imprisoned.
The FBI arrested George Sylvester Viereck, a German-born naturalised American citizen, a mild-mannered poet and publisher, on 8 October 1941, in New Jersey. Viereck was not exactly accused of being a Nazi agent—since Viereck had been a registered agent of the German government since October 1939—but was accused of misreporting his activities under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Specifically, Viereck was accused of failing to declare efforts to influence U.S. politics by supplying funds to Prescott Dennett, which paid for Dennett’s own pro-Nazi isolationist lobby group, the Make Europe Pay War Debts Committee, established in December 1939, and through Dennett funded a web of other similar groups. Dennett had worked closely with two Republicans in Congress, Senator Ernest Lundeen (Minnesota) and Representative Hamilton Fish (New York), to get Nazi propaganda into the Congressional Record.51 Part of what made this discovery possible was that FDR had instructed the FBI in 1935 to increase its investigations of Nazi activity in the U.S., and this had involved targeting Congressmen like Nye, Wheeler, and Fish.52 Still, going after Congressmen directly with legal charges was politically difficult, so the government settled for a perjury indictment against Fish’s secretary, George Hill. Hill was convicted after being shown to have received Nazi government funds via Viereck and lied about it under oath. The embarrassment of these revelations called Fish’s loyalty into question so grievously that Fish clamoured after Pearl Harbour to be one of the first demanding the public “present a united front in support of the President”.53 Viereck stayed in jail until 1947, escaping the additional charges thrown at him in 1942. Dennett would be dealt with three years later in the greatest set-piece of the “Brown Scare”.
On 17 December 1941, ten days after Pearl Harbour, the famous pilot Laura Ingalls was arrested on charges of being paid from Berlin for her speeches at the AFC that openly lauded Hitler. The timing was because Ingalls was about to fly to Germany, a plan she had mediated on for months in conversation with an informant. The formal charges were under FARA—and she confessed to being an unregistered paid agent of the Nazi government, even discussing securing a pay rise from her handler, Ulrich von Gienanth, who worked under official cover at the Embassy. Ingalls’ claim in court was that she wanted to be “a sort of Mata Hari, an international super spy”, and was only appearing to get close to the Germans, so she could spy on them. It took the jury ninety minutes to reject this argument and she was sentenced to up to two years in prison.
Ingalls’ lawyer overstated his case in calling it a “witch hunt”, but he was quite correct that Ingalls’ trial was as much political theatre as it was law: the U.S. government wanted to use her conviction to embarrass the America First Committee and discredit even further the collapsing isolationist movement, to hammer the final nails into its coffin. The AFC might ultimately have died by suicide—grievously wounded by Charles Lindbergh’s antisemitic Des Moines speech in September 1941 and then overtaken by events at Pearl Harbour three months later—but FDR had spared no effort in trying to kill it. The administration had waged an unrelenting ideological assault on the AFC as it sought to shift public opinion against Nazism, and Lindbergh was personally targeted over and over. President Roosevelt denounced Lindbergh at one point as a “copperhead” (Northern supporter of the Confederacy), and Secretary of the Interior Howard Ickes bluntly called Lindbergh a “Nazi mouthpiece”.54 The campaign against Lindbergh, a private citizen, exceeded anything done during “McCarthyism”, when no American citizen was singled out for public denigration by the President and his Cabinet—and unlike a lot of the people publicly criticised in the 1947-54 period, who were members of (or otherwise connected to) the CPUSA, the agency of a hostile foreign despotism, Lindbergh’s ties to the Nazi government were much more tenuous.
Another embarrassment for the America Firsters was soon to follow. Ralph Townsend, a journalist and former diplomat who had been very active in the AFC, had come to State attention in November 1941 as part of the investigation into Scribner’s Commentator, a Wisconsin-based isolationist newspaper in receipt of German funds. Townsend was arrested on 28 January 1942, charged under FARA with being an unregistered Japanese agent, and convicted on 12 June, being sentenced to up to two years in prison.
SILENCING THE SEDITIONISTS
Up to Pearl Harbour, the federal government’s hand was largely concealed in the crackdown on the Axis fifth column. The only truly direct federal action was the FBI arresting spies and nobody could complain about that. HUAC was encouraged from behind the scenes, FDR deputised the New York mayor to charge Kuhn with financial crimes, the regulators had silenced Father Coughlin, nobody in the Roosevelt administration had written the blacklist with Lillian Gish’s name on it, and it was hardly FDR’s fault if important rivals, like Representative Fish and the America First Committee, insisted on employing Axis spies, as demonstrated in very public trials that the White House was entirely at liberty to comment upon. In the shadow of Pearl Harbour, however, FDR was finished with such subtlety.
FDR was far from alone in believing that America had to cease tolerating Axis agitators now that the country was at war for real. The fear of the Axis fifth column had been “rife” on the FDR-supporting American Left since no later than 1938-39. After Pearl Harbour, attacks on “the fascist Right” escalated—and, of course, those caught up in this were not just the Nazi sympathisers on the American Right. Claims from Left-wing commentators, such as that the Nazis had a million men working for them within the United States, helped energise the public against totalitarianism; it also conditioned an atmosphere where there were cases of German and Italian shops being attacked. When the President borrowed a term from his cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, to lambaste the Hitlerian “lunatic fringe” that had to be fought, it was done in so inexact a way it could apply to almost any critic of his war policies. The use of such indiscriminate hyperbole would be called “McCarthyism” and “smear tactics” when used later in the 1940s, and held to be so morally unacceptable it called into question the legitimacy of the entire post-war anti-Communist campaign. Bestselling books like Michael Sayers’ and Albert Kahn’s Sabotage! (1942) and John Roy Carlson’s Under Cover (1943) furthered the public perception that American isolationists and German Nazis were one and the same, creating heavy social costs (sometimes including the loss of employment) for people whose political views strayed too close to being pro-Nazi. For some Leftists and liberals, fired by that mingled sincere fanaticism and cynicism in which partisans of all shades specialise, a chance seemed to have presented itself to purge the Right from American political life for good; this was a sentiment that ran deep in the Roosevelt administration.55 Political opportunists using a national security threat for their own ends does not negate the reality of that threat, of course.
The basis for dealing with the seditionists was already in place. FDR’s Justice Department had empanelled a grand jury in D.C. to investigate Nazi espionage and propaganda in July 1941.56 The President’s problem was that a month later he had appointed as Francis Biddle as Attorney General, a man committed to a fairly absolutist reading of the First Amendment. FDR made a great show at Cabinet in the weeks after Pearl Harbour of darkening his mood as he turned to Biddle to ask, “When are you going to indict the seditionists?” The President did this repeatedly, week after week, the same question. Instead, Biddle personally intervened to secure the release of Robert Noble and Ellis O. Jones, the leaders of the fascist Friends of Progress, and F.K. Ferenz, a Bundist film distributor, after they held a mock trial accusing FDR of treason and were arrested under the Espionage Act. Biddle later wrote in his memoirs that FDR “was not much interested in the theory of sedition, or in the constitutional right to criticize the government in wartime. He wanted this anti-war talk stopped.”57 When Biddle refused to comply, FDR lost patience with him and turned to Hoover’s FBI.58
The first seditionist FDR directed the FBI to deal with was William Pelley, whose Silver Shirts had been formally disbanded at the end of 1940. In October 1941, Pelley tried to sort out his legal situation, turning himself in to authorities in North Carlina. Pelley was sentenced in January 1942 to two to three years in prison for parole violations relating to the 1934 financial case; he appealed. While the appeal processed, Pelley tried to reinvent himself, starting a new magazine, The Galilean, supposedly focused only on religious matters, which soon had 3,000 subscribers. Incautiously, Pelley thought religious matters included blaming FDR for inviting—and perhaps permitting—the Japanese attack. This presumably made FDR an accomplice in “divine justice”, as Pelley described Pearl Harbour—an awkward fit with the demonic portrait of the Roosevelt administration elsewhere in the periodical.59 FDR already considered Pelley’s writings “pretty close to being seditious”, as he told Biddle—and wanted to get a move on with others, seeing the war as “a good chance to clean up a number of … vile publications”.
In February 1942, the federal government ordered Pelley to submit all future editions of The Galilean to the Post Office. Pelley rejected the demand and in March 1942 shut down the magazine, but not before writing an article saying that, contrary to FDR’s claims, the Pacific fleet was not largely unscathed—something that would only be officially admitted after the war. FDR was firmly of the view that (as was once said) there is “nothing worse than accurate, irresponsible, ill-informed press speculation”, and, using the pretext of finding one single copy of The Galilean in a soldier’s backpack, invoked the Espionage Act to charge Pelley with obstructing conscription and inciting insurrection in the military, plus a raft of sedition counts purely based on Pelley’s verbal and written statements. Pelley was arrested in Connecticut on 4 April 1942, given a trial where his defence was distinctly inadequate, and thrown in jail, where he would remain until 1950.60
Just before Pelley was arrested, the Roosevelt administration had taken in G.W. Christians, the leader of the “Crusader White Shirts” or “American Fascists” (initially a pro-Communist group called the “American Reds”) down in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on 27 March 1942. Simultaneously, Rudolph Fahl, a physical education teacher in Denver, was taken into custody. These would be the test subjects for FDR’s legal theory of sedition. In late June 1940, two weeks after the fall of Paris, Congress passed the Alien Registration Act, better known as the Smith Act after Representative Howard W. Smith, a Virginia Democrat, which required the registration of all non-citizen adults with federal authorities and made it a crime to advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government or to sow dissention in the military. The Smith Act would be used to drive the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) underground and cripple the Soviets’ intelligence capacity within the U.S. for most of the 1950s, but the first use of the Smith Act was against Nazi sympathisers, Fahl and G.W. Christians, who was—amid his claims to be a “political prisoner”—sentenced on 8 June 1942, after a four-day trial, to at least five years in prison, more if necessary to ensure he was not allowed out of prison while the war was still on. (Fahl was acquitted, the only one of the March-April 1942 detainees who was.)
At least four more seditionists were rounded up in early April. FDR was proud of this work, including it as part of his “Fireside Chat” speech of 28 April 1942. “This great war effort must be carried through to its victorious conclusion”, said President Roosevelt. “It must not be impeded by a few bogus patriots who use the sacred freedom of the press to echo the sentiments of the propagandists in Tokyo and Berlin. And, above all, it shall not be imperilled by the handful of noisy traitors—betrayers of America, betrayers of Christianity itself—would-be dictators who in their hearts and souls have yielded to Hitlerism and would have this Republic do likewise.” FDR’s pièce de résistance on this front was shortly to be set in place, but there were a couple of pieces of business to get to first.
A federal grand jury in Connecticut, working from FBI information, indicted five naturalised citizens on 10 June 1942 under the Espionage Act. By 25 August, all had been arrested and sentenced. What is crucial to understand is that, though this was charged under the Espionage Act and even presented by the government as the smashing of a “third major Nazi spy ring”, after the Duquesne and Ludwig/JOE K networks, “At no time during the investigation or trial … did there appear any established European contacts indicating the actual transmittal of espionage material abroad.” It is clear that Anastasy Vonsiatsky, the leader of the network, a Russian who had fought on the anti-Bolshevik side of the civil war,61 intended to establish a relationship with the Nazi government, via the fugitive Bund leader Gerhard Kunze, who was arrested in Mexico on 30 June as he boarded a boat for Europe. But there was no extant connection with Berlin: it was an agent network waiting to be recruited. Two of the other indictees had strikingly similar profiles: Otto Willumeit and Wolfgang Ebell were both ethnic German medical doctors born in Alsace-Lorraine who became Bundists in America (Willumeit was particularly close to Kunze). The final indictee, Lutheran minister Kurt Molzahn, is the most interesting: imprisoned under accusations he was a courier for Kunze, Molzahn was pardoned and released by President Truman in June 1945, and given an unconditional pardon by President Eisenhower in 1956. That story still has not been told.
(Unrelated to the anti-Nazi campaign, the last invocation of the Smith Act in 1942, in December of that year, was against sixteen members of “Mankind United”, a kind of utopian socialist cult—based in California, obviously—whose ideological successors include the Jonestown set. This case was swiftly overturned and the cultists released.)
OPERATION PASTORIUS: NAZI LANDINGS, AMERICAN LAW
The worst fears about enemy landings, the spur for the internment policy, appeared confirmed in June 1942, when the Nazis launched Operation PASTORIUS62:
On 13 June 1942, four members of the German marine infantry landed [in a U-Boat] on a beach at Amagansett, New York, some 125 miles east of New York City. Four days later, another group of four Germans landed at Ponte Vedra Beach, near Jacksonville, Florida. Both groups brought with them explosives, incendiaries, fuses, and timing devices, and they buried these materials before traveling to some of America’s largest cities. These would-be saboteurs admitted that they had changed out of their German marine uniforms and into civilian clothes. … They had been assigned the mission of wreaking havoc in enemy territory, and they carried with them a list of American targets— factories, power plants, transportation centers, and water supply facilities.63
The PASTORIUS saboteur teams consisted of six German citizens who had been in America and two American citizens. The New York team, basing itself on Long Island, was led by George Dasch, and included: Ernest Burger (American), Heinrich Heinck, and Richard Quirin. The Florida team, which dispersed to New York and Chicago, was led by Edward Kerling, and included: Werner Thiel, Herman Neubauer, and Herbert Haupt (American, the youngest, just 22-years-old). Dasch later claimed he had only joined the mission to escape from Nazism, the oppression of which had thoroughly disillusioned him.64 What is certain is that nearly as soon as he arrived, Dasch confessed to Burger his intention to defect, and Burger supported him. Dasch turned himself over to the FBI on 19 June; the rest of Dasch’s Long Island team were rounded up on 20 June; Kerling and Thiel were arrested in New York City on 23 June; and Neubauer and Haupt were apprehended in Chicago on 27 June. The Nazi saboteurs were found in possession of $175,000 (about $3.3 million in today’s money), giving a sense of the scale of what the Nazis intended to do within America by way of damage to war-materiel production and terrorising the population.
FDR ordered that the eight PASTORIUS saboteurs be tried in the strictest secrecy by an ad hoc military tribunal, run in the Department of Justice Building in Washington, D.C., and overseen by seven U.S. Army Generals the President selected. The trial, on rather arbitrarily constructed charges of violating the laws of war, began on 8 July and concluded on 4 August 1942 with guilty verdicts and death sentences for all of them. The intervention of Attorney General Biddle and FBI Director Hoover saw clemency granted to Dasch and Burger.65 The other six, an American citizen among them, were executed in the electric chair on 8 August.
The legality of the military tribunal had been challenged, but the Supreme Court upheld it in Ex parte Quirin, on 31 July, denying the appeals for writs of habeas corpus and effectively accepting the handling of the PASTORIUS case as a part of the war, the conduct of which rested with the Commander-in-Chief and was no business of civilian courts. The ruling accepted that the Nazi saboteurs were, as the government described them, “unlawful combatants”, who in discarding their uniforms after crossing enemy lines and plotting attacks against civilian targets had disqualified themselves from the prisoner-of-war (POW) protections in the 1907 Hague Conventions.66
Whether the military commission was legal, legality was not the driving consideration in its construction. The military jurisdiction was needed, as Biddle later wrote in his memoirs, because the charges almost certainly would have failed to secure a conviction in a civilian court. The military setting the rules of evidence, making some constitutional rights of the defence inapplicable, and being able to convict on a two-thirds majority made the commission a very different environment. The secrecy was needed because the discovery of the Nazi saboteurs had created a serious crisis of public confidence about the government’s ability to protect the homeland and this had been allayed by Hoover—who led the public-relations for the administration (and sat in on the trial)—letting stand the idea that the FBI had detected and rolled up the spy ring in such short order based on its own prowess, not the defection of one of its leaders. Some of the embittered German captives were rather keen for a public forum where they could vent about their comrades’ betrayal; in the interests of U.S. public morale, this would be denied.67
Hoover and other Roosevelt administration spokesmen contended that PASTORIUS was the first wave of what would be more infiltrations, that there were conspirators within the country who would have helped them, and that thousands of people would have been murdered and maimed—all of which was very likely true, and none of which came to pass.68 A recurrent problem in national security policy is that when State policy works, by preventing threats manifesting, it means nothing happens, allowing critics to claim there was never a serious problem and the measures taken were excessive and needless.
THE LAST NAZI INFILTRATION ATTEMPT
On 29 November 1944, two Nazi spies landed in America (Operation ELSTER or MAGPIE). Dropped off by a U-Boat at Hancock Point in Maine, the duo made their way to Boston and then New York City. Erich Gimpel, a German, was a seasoned Abwehr operative, working from Peru to spy on enemy ships in the 1930s, before moving to America. Gimpel was deported—obviously correctly—as a suspected enemy alien in December 1941, and spent some time in Spain. Gimpel, a radio enthusiast, was sent back to America to discover what he could about Allied war plans, the relationship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and about various aspects of war production (rockets and airplanes).69 Gimpel was then to beam them back to Berlin with a radio transmitter he was expected to build. Gimpel was accompanied by William Colepaugh, an American citizen who had arrived in Germany earlier in 1944 after abandoning a merchant ship in Portugal. Colepaugh had for years been of certifiable Nazi views—indeed, seemingly certifiable, full stop. Colepaugh was sent to the Netherlands to train at an SS school in espionage and terrorism, including with explosives; he brought weapons with him.
One notable thing about the ELSTER mission is that it had been delayed—the pair had departed Germany on 22 September 1944—because another submarine meant to land spies in America, the first since the PASTORIUS fiasco, had been sunk in August 1944.70 The other notable thing is that this third attempt to land spies in America was an abysmal failure. Colepaugh quite genuinely hated America, but he was easily distracted by women and was “one of the … most accomplished drinkers I ever met”, as Gimpel later put it. Given $60,000 ($1.1 million in today’s money), Colepaugh blew through $1,500 in about four weeks—an average industrial yearly salary in the U.S. was $2,300—and, under a hail of criticism from Gimpel for his behaviour, handed himself in to the FBI on 26 December 1944. Gimpel was arrested on 30 December. The interrogators concluded Colepaugh’s surrender was motivated by a mix of hopelessness—the Nazi regime was near the end and his mission could do nothing to change that, even if the instructions had been less unfocused—and some genuine change of heart. The military commission, however, had nothing but contempt for Colepaugh—a traitor, and a feckless one at that. On 14 February 1945, the PASTORIUS template was repeated: Gimpel and Colepaugh were given capital sentences. The hangings would have taken place on 15 April, but FDR died on 12 April and the mourning period paused federal executions. President Harry Truman commuted the sentences.71
THE GREAT SEDITION TRIAL
Having taken most of the pro-Nazi agitators out of circulation in 1942, and dealt with the internment issue and the PASTORIUS intrusion later that year, FDR overcame various hesitations and delays so that by 1944 he was ready to make an example of the seditionists.
A skilled politician, FDR was going with the grain of heightened Left-wing and liberal concerns about the Axis fifth column after Pearl Harbour and prepared the ground for his move against the seditionists in early 1942 by coordinating with the press.72 A major article in Life Magazine in April 1942 named many of those who would soon be arrested, and a similar piece appeared in the Washington Post. The political momentum overwhelmed Attorney General Biddle’s reluctance: he announced a series of grand jury inquiries, starting in Chicago, which culminated on 21 July 1942 with the filing of charges against twenty-eight pro-Nazi agitators. In November 1942, FDR’s Democrats were badly beaten in the off-year elections, and the emboldened Republican leader, Senator Robert Taft, began denouncing the trial as a “witch hunt”. Senators Nye and Wheeler, having set aside their isolationism after Pearl Harbour, now saw a new road to attacking FDR. The President was unmoved: his Justice Department indicted and arrested another five men in January 1943, bringing them to Washington, D.C., to await trial.73 On 3 January 1944, at the third attempt, an indictment was issued that stuck, naming thirty defendants.
The trial opened on 17 April 1944 in proceedings formally named United States v. McWilliams, and universally known to the press as the “Great Sedition Trial”. The men were accused, to put it simply, of conspiring with each other, and with the Nazi government,74 to bring about America’s defeat in the war,75 with the intention that this should lead to the destruction of America’s democratic government and its replacement with a despotism on the “national socialist or fascist” model. Towards this end, the accused were said to have engaged in spreading “systematic propaganda”—including portraying the Roosevelt administration as a puppet of Jewish plutocrats and socialist radicals, and justifying aggression by the Axis as a necessary defensive measure against the Judeo-Bolshevik threat—which was intended to incite disorder and disloyalty in the Armed Forces.76
The legal basis for the charges was the Smith Act, which made it illegal to “advocate … or teach the … necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying any government in the United States by force or violence” and criminalised all attempts to “interfere with, impair, or influence the loyalty, morale, or discipline of the military … or in any manner cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty by any member of the military”. (The criminality of obstructing the operations or damaging the cohesion of the military was well-established in U.S. law at this point, having been introduced with the 1917 Espionage Act, and, indeed, the first two indictments had included charges under the Espionage Act.77) This was only the second invocation of the Smith Act: the first use of the Smith Act was to prosecute twenty-three Communists in Minnesota affiliated with the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), a Trotskyist faction, and the local branch of the Teamsters Union, who had been arrested in June 1941. The “Minneapolis Sedition Trial”, which opened on 27 October 1941, ended in convictions and served as a model for McWilliams.
In terms of the defendants, the trial was named for Joe McWilliams, leader of a radical splinter of Father Coughlin’s “Christian Front” that collaborated with the Bund and more overtly advocated violence against Jews and Communists. McWilliams was in many ways a stand-in for the troublesome priest, who had already been dealt with by other means. Pelley and Viereck were dragged from their prison cells to stand trial. There were others whom we have already met: James True, Gerald Winrod, Ellis Jones, Prescott Dennett, and Gerhard Kunze, plus three other Bund leaders. Reverand Winrod, who had run for the Senate in his home State of Kansas, was one of the two most prominent men on trial. The other was Lawrence Dennis, a mixed-race former diplomat, regarded as one of the intellectual leaders of American fascism.78 Dennis’ 1946 book, co-authored with another defendant, Maximilian John St. George, A Trial on Trial: The Great Sedition Trial of 1944, helped solidify the “Great Sedition Trial” moniker among those who remembered the affair at all. Unable to bring Colonel Lindbergh to trial, another conspicuous America First Committee member was put in the dock, Elizabeth Dilling, a Christian anti-Communist polemicist who also led the “Mothers’ movement”.79 Robert E. Edmondson led the “Pan-Aryan Conference” and spent most of his time documenting the Jews in high places, believing FDR was one of them. Edmondson’s anti-Communism was the Bircher, fluoride-in-the-water type. Edmondson had connections to the publishing network of Ulrich Fleischhauer, a German antisemitic propagandist of the most hysterical kind. Fleischhauer oversaw outlets like the World Service and had tight links to the Nazi Party.80 Ulrich Fleischhauer was the one defendant charged in absentia. The delay in starting the trial after the January 1944 indictment, due to issues with jury selection and so on, was then extended on opening day when Edward James Smythe, a senior member of the Protestant War Veterans Association and an avid Axis propagandist, had to be recaptured.
As it began with Smythe, so it would continue. No matter the high dudgeon some polemicists work themselves into about McWilliams as a “show trial”,81 the earnest moral tone is very difficult to sustain because no honest account of the trial has yet managed to avoid the word “circus”. The defendants constantly interrupted proceedings, shouting and laughing at Judge Edward Eicher, a liberal former Democratic Congressman close to FDR who could easily be accused of political bias. Various zoo noises were used to impede the prosecutor, John Rogge. Supposedly “ironic” mocking of the trial included the indicted giving Nazi salutes and wearing signs reading, “I Am a Spy”. The defendants were cited for contempt so often they had buttons printed up with “EEC” (Eicher Contempt Club) written on them.82 On Halloween, they all showed up in masks.83 Biddle wrote later that there was “nothing like the [McWilliams] trial” on record in America,84 and he was right in more ways than one.
A mistrial was declared on 30 November 1944, the day before the last Nazi infiltration attempt and two weeks before the final Nazi offensive on the Western Front, when Judge Eicher suddenly died of a heart attack, quite possibly brought on by stress from the “riotous” carry-on in his courtroom.85 After seven months, the trial was not even half completed: the 18,000 pages of trial records accounted for only 39 of 100 State witnesses and just 1,000 of 4,000 proposed exhibits to be entered into evidence.86
That was not quite the end, however: after FDR’s death in April 1945, the war’s end in May, and Biddle’s departure in June, the charges were filed again. It had become obvious to all before the trial ended that convictions were unlikely (or if secured, would be lost on appeal) because of the Supreme Court decisions in 1943-44, interpreting the First Amendment guarantee of free speech in ever-more-absolute terms and beginning to repeal aspects of FDR’s security system, like denaturalising Bund members. Still, the application for a retrial was only finally thrown out in December 1946.87
What, then, to make of the Great Sedition Trial at this distance? The decision to charge them as a job lot in federal court was a political decision, because of doubts about securing convictions with local juries, and it meant that the legal theory of the prosecution—that all the defendants were involved in a single conspiracy coordinated with the Nazi government to bring off a coup—was plainly false. Most of the defendants did not know each other, and, where there were connections, they tended to be tenuous.88 The actual chances of a coup by this rabble were somewhere below the chances of the “Business Plot”, and that might not even have existed.89
That said, the accused in McWilliams were all clearly working in the same broad direction, using various methods of public communications, to assist the enemy and transform America in its image. While convictions under the letter of the law were probably always out of reach, there is no serious doubt that the accused were guilty in terms of the spirit of the law, and in a sense their “punishment” was commensurate with this reality: there were no formal convictions, but the extremists were entangled in a legal process that: (1) drained them of time and money, preventing them engaging in propaganda during the war; (2) damaged their reputations and thus their political cause: anyone who did hear from them after this would not listen to them; and (3) wounded the standing and reach of people like Senators Nye and Wheeler and Colonel Lindberg who were associated with the accused. This outcome was not coincidental.90
The “show trial” appellation as applied to McWilliams is invidious and mendacious. It is true that the Great Sedition Trial was as much an act of moral theatre as it was a legal proceeding—but that is always true. Sometimes this is more obvious, as with the trial Israel staged for Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1962 to bring attention to the Holocaust at a moment when much of the world had buried the memory. Generally, however, it is simply implicit: law issues out of political systems to provide an incentive structure—for some behaviours, against others—and public trials to enforce the laws against certain behaviours, from murder on down, are part of reinforcing these incentive signals. Moreover, whilst in normal conditions upholding the law contributes to the security of the political system that creates it, in any situation where a conflict arises between the two objectives, the supreme imperative is the preservation of the political system that makes law possible, of the State that protects the population. Within this framework, the outcome of shutting up, and locking up, open supporters of the enemy during a total war takes precedence over the legal process to get there. These were the obligations laid upon the Roosevelt administration. The objections of pedantic libertarian legalists and Nazi sympathisers do not count for much in this context, nor the exacting judgments rendered retrospectively by those enjoying the safety secured by the State taking these actions at the moment of crisis.91
The Great Sedition Trial was being forgotten before it had even concluded: the coverage had drastically reduced by August 1944—only three journalists, out of dozens present in the first weeks, were still attending the trial regularly, and their daily dispatches were reduced to a weekly report for the last three months of the trial.92 By now, the trial and everyone involved is almost totally forgotten. A minor exception is William Pelley, and he serves as a useful concrete example of how an ancient tension in Christian civilisation, the question of whether to give primacy to the letter or the spirit of the law,93 mapped onto the Great Sedition Trial.
Pelley remains a martyr to FDR’s “tyranny” in far-Right circles, where he is invariably described as a “political prisoner”.94 Most people will find this ludicrous. Pelley led a paramilitary group openly modelled on the Sturmabteilung (SA) and publicly supported Hitler. The Nazi government invited Pelley to an anti-COMINTERN Congress in 1938, during a period when Berlin was deepening its efforts to cultivate Pelley. Oscar Pfaus established close contact with Pelley, and Pelley worked with Nazi propaganda outlets like the German World Service to amplify his antisemitic works.95 Pelley was also quite content to work with Nazi fronts and Nazi agents like Viereck and Boris Brasol in a conscious effort to further the Nazi cause.
Yet it has to be acknowledged that, while the Nazi government was intrigued by Pelley, Pelley’s Christianity was ideologically unnerving to the Nazis, and was among the reasons they kept their dealings with him at arm’s length. Pelley was never paid by the Nazis for the material he contributed to their propaganda efforts, nor for anything else. The U.S. federal government’s claim in 1944 that Pelley was a Nazi agent was untrue.96 Of course, Pelley was not in prison for being a Nazi spy. In legal terms, Pelley spent eight years in prison on sedition charges, primarily relating to statements of his political preferences, with additional charges of insurrectionary incitement within the military added on the flimsiest evidence. During this, Pelley was taken from his prison cell to be put through the wringer of another trial that, apart from subjecting him to another round of public humiliation and opprobrium as prosecutors insisted he was an enemy spy, could have extended his sentence even further if not for an act of God, namely the judge’s death.
Cases where an obviously pro-Soviet activist was misidentified by a Congressman as an actual spy continue to show up in polemics against “McCarthyism” all these years later, held to demonstrate the “repression” and “hysteria” of the U.S. government in the late 1940s and early 1950s. There is curiously little evidence—in the historiographical or journalistic literature—of objections to this having happened to Pelley, despite the fact it happened during a criminal trial, whereas the McCarthy-era witnesses were in front of Congressional panels where they faced no danger of prosecution. It cannot be overstated how night and day different Pelley’s treatment was from anything that happened during “McCarthyism”: “not a single person who appeared before the McCarthy committee went to jail for accusations McCarthy brought against them”, not even process crimes like contempt or perjury.97
Yet how many people really do object to what was done to Pelley? Nazi apologists and civil libertarians do, of course, but for most people it will seem quite right that such a dangerous man was neutralised at such a moment. The distinction between conscious traitors, totalitarian fanatics who work for the enemy for free, fellow travellers, and useful idiots are interesting only academically; the practical security necessity is to guard against all of them.
LEGACY AND MEMORY
In preparing to take America to war against a totalitarian foe, and then shoring up the home front after the conflict began, the anti-Nazi forces in the U.S. government accompanied their narrow counter-intelligence efforts to detect and neutralise Nazi spies with a broader political-legal program to suffocate the Nazi message, making it so toxic that the naïve could not be seduced by it and in many cases were prevented even from hearing it, while the ideological devotees of Nazism, their fellow travellers, and those who assisted them, even unwittingly, had their lives made very difficult. Known or suspected Nazi sympathisers were removed from government positions, and such political views prevented many others from acquiring State jobs. Congress was used as a bully pulpit to expose and shame sympathisers and supporters of the enemy, even where—as in most cases—their views and activities were protected by the First Amendment. Those so exposed by Congress, often using heated language and frequently exaggerating their direct connections to the Nazi government, had great difficulty getting or retaining work at private institutions after 1941—and this incentive structure meant people considered to be in the same camp as those raked over the coals in Congress also struggled for work. Legal measures were taken to restrict the ability of pro-Nazi voices to be heard and to make it difficult for them to organise. The laws on sedition were liberally interpreted to imprison individuals and shut down groups nurturing pro-Nazi sentiment, or organising themselves in ways that suggested they were trying to bring the Nazi Revolution to America. Suspect foreigners present in America from the enemy States were rounded up at will, and nearly the entire population, including American citizens, whose ancestry went back to one of the enemy States were interred.
The term “Brown Scare” was coined to describe this suite of policies, and is clearly meant to draw an equivalence—in terms of what was done and the moral disapproval of same—with the so-called “Red Scares”, the elevated security measures after the two world wars to deal with the heightened Communist threat. It is noteworthy that “Brown Scare” was devised not by a self-pitying Nazi sympathiser, but by a Left-wing progressive, Leo Ribuffo, in a book in the 1980s that was critical of the Christian Right.98 In itself it is telling that “the term Brown Scare is still ‘owned’ by Ribuffo”, whereas “Red Scare”—created by Frederick Lewis Allen, another progressive historian, in 1931—has passed into such general usage that nobody feels any need to cite its originator when deploying it.99 So, how well does Ribuffo’s equivalence hold up?
The similarities between the “Brown Scare” and the “First Red Scare” are quite striking. FDR used exactly the same process as President Wilson had against domestic radical groups trying to disrupt conscription and the more general war effort, charging them under the Espionage Act. There was a difference in scale: in 1917-19, about 1,000 people were convicted under the Espionage Act (and Sedition Act amendment), while about 200 were convicted in 1939-45.100 But there are two qualifications to this. First, almost all of the Great War-era convicts had been released by the end of 1921, including high-profile figures like Eugene Debs, and all received full amnesty—not merely pardons—in due course. Some of the seditionists convicted in the “Brown Scare” remained in prison into the 1950s and none of them were ever even pardoned. Second, FDR was also able to work against seditionists under the Smith Act (with the support of the CPUSA, amusingly, a Party soon driven underground when the Act was invoked against them.) The other Wilsonian methods, denaturalising some citizens and deporting them alongside seditious aliens, were adopted by Roosevelt, too.101 The main difference was that the Wilson administration never imposed any capital sentences, even when German spy-terrorists were captured, while FDR executed numerous German infiltrators.
Ribuffo’s argument that the McWilliams trial and the surrounding State instruments—HUAC, the Smith Act, the FBI—laid the groundwork for the “Second Red Scare” or the so-called “McCarthyist” period is essentially true in an institutional sense, but it sharpens the differences in how they were used. For a start, whatever the strict civil libertarian objections are to the use of Congress to criticise individual political extremists and the loss of government jobs during “McCarthyism”, they pale next to the procedures of the “Great Sedition Trial”. The use of the Smith Act in 1949 against the CPUSA for being an organ of the Soviet State, engaged in espionage and subversion in the U.S., produced a legal spectacle that in certain respects resembles McWilliams, especially in its raucous conduct and ultimately inconclusive outcome, but it is rather clearly distinct in that its charges were entirely factual and were initially reflected in the verdict. One might also note this took place before Senator McCarthy became a public figure. If it is true that McCarthy stoked a much more febrile rhetorical atmosphere, especially by 1953, it is equally true that the post-war Soviet espionage network in the U.S. was far larger and much more threatening than anything the Nazis managed, and nothing McCarthy did led to the arrest, let alone imprisonment, of a single person.
Ribuffo’s equivalence, then, obviously has force. Whether the anti-Axis crackdown was identical to the two anti-Communist crackdowns is immaterial. It is clearly the same type of event: a reaction to a dramatic national threat “leading to cohesion and boundary maintenance”.102 Which restates the question: Why is the term “Red Scare” commonplace, often in ostensibly neutral write-ups of the periods, and “Brown Scare” is not?
It self-evidently cannot be a blanket theoretical or moral objection to a program intended, in the face of a most murderous and aggressive ideological foe, to strengthen the U.S.’s legal and political footing to resist the onslaught, by among other things removing from positions of influence, in the State and where possible in society, those committed to the enemy’s cause, their fellow travellers, and the useful idiots whose naïveté abets them. Nor do practical objections related to the specifics get us very far.
It cannot be because of the disparities between State actions and the scale of the threat. This is a poor metric in any case, because it relies on a “‘presentist’ judgment of what seemed reasonable at the time”, when “we already know the outcome”.103 Be that as it may, the danger of revolutionary upheaval in the U.S. in 1919 was quite real, with widespread terrorism and popular violence that has no comparison before or during the Second World War. Likewise, Nazi regime intrusions onto U.S. territory and intelligence links to domestic pro-Nazi forces on the fringes of American politics cannot be compared to the danger from Communist influence over important cultural and societal institutions, like trades unions, and the vast infiltration of spies into the U.S. government that had taken place under the cover of the wartime “alliance” with Stalin’s Soviet Union.104 Senator McCarthy under-estimated the problem and his self-serving political exploitation of a serious security issue damaged the anti-Communist cause far more than it did any of his targets, leaving in the public memory of this period terms like “inquisition”, “witch-hunt”, and even “purge”, attempting to equate McCarthy’s heated Congressional haranguing of people who were—with “a handful” of exceptions105—exactly what he said they were, and the Moscow trials and Yezhovshchina that killed three million innocent people.
It cannot be because the “excesses” of the two anti-Communist crackdowns were so much greater than those of the anti-Axis campaign. It is borderline ahistorical to impose a retrospective judgment on what was proportional, given that in all three cases the State acted against the threats with contemporaneous legitimacy, i.e. within the law and with popular consent.106 With that caveat in place, the Japanese internment component of the “Brown Scare” alone dwarfs in scale and kind anything done in either of the “Red Scares”. A civil liberties-focused accounting that for some reason exempted Japanese internment would find the “Brown Scare” roughly comparable to the “First Red Scare” and considerably “worse” than the “Second Red Scare”. If “McCarthyism” is interpreted in the broadest possible sense, to include every security measure from 1947 to 1954 and it is assumed everyone dismissed from State employment under the loyalty-security program was wronged, it still does not come close to the censorship of magazines and imprisonment of seditionists by FDR. When it comes to the more intangible aspect of people being unfairly maligned, any “collateral damage” in the “McCarthyist” and post-First World War eras were by definition much smaller, falling on socialists and the Left-of-centre, while FDR attacked the isolationist support system for the Nazi cause that encompassed a majority of the population until late 1941.107 There is also a distinct difference between the White House engaging in political warfare against individual citizens, as FDR did with (say) Charles Lindberg, and the activities of a controversial Senator facing the united public opposition of the other party, most of the press, the universities, the unions, as well as the covert opposition of the President (from his own party).
If the instantiation of the “Red Scares” in public memory, and the near-complete absence of the “Brown Scare”, is not due to some objective assessment criteria like civil liberties, one must look to a subjective cause. Public memory and public forgetting are not, after all, spontaneous phenomena: they are the result of exertions by people. State and cultural power-centres decide what to remember, according to what they judge important, either as positive examples or as “national traumas” with negative lessons, and these memories have to be nurtured in politicians’ speeches, memorial days, films, books, newspapers, school textbooks, and museums. Clearly, then, these official and social elites who were positioned to make their sentiments into national memory judged that there had been “persecution” in the crackdowns on Communism that was so serious it had to be remembered so it would not be repeated, while there were no important lessons from the anti-Axis crackdown—and those who did believe FDR had improperly victimised people in a way that was worth memorialising were “ineffectively placed in terms of public discourse”, so their perspective “never reached those generations that were not aware of it firsthand”.108 That is the how; it leaves the issue of why these memory-forming elites evaluated things this way.
Reflecting on the deep elite fury, official and otherwise, that came his way when he publicly named the impeccably credentialed Alger Hiss as a traitor, Whittaker Chambers noted his realisation “that when I took up my little sling and aimed at Communism, I also hit something else”, namely the liberal intelligentsia—“the best people”, as he put it—who, operating from the highest motives, pushed “spasmodically, incompletely, somewhat formlessly, but always in the same direction” as the Communists.109 This layer of people at the commanding heights of the State and society—the Cabinet Secretaries, civil servants, journalists, academics, heads of corporations, charities, and community groups—felt personally attacked by the effort to constrict the spectrum of legitimate political opinion so as to exclude Communism in a way that they did not when Nazism was anathematised. Since these same people would write the history, the narrative of the “Red Scares” solidified, and the “Brown Scare” went down the memory hole.
To finish where we began: Ribuffo’s comparison between FDR’s policies against the Axis fifth column and the anti-Communist measures after the two world wars is valid on whatever level one tests it—political, legal, operational, moral—but this does not validate his use of the term “Brown Scare”, which quite properly languishes in obscurity, a loaded term with disreputable connotations, associated as it is with the treacherous ideological extremists who were targeted in that campaign. The issue in need of correction is that “Red Scare” is not seen the same way.
Post has been updated
Gary Sheffield (2001), Forgotten Victory: The First World War: Myths and Realities, pp. 12-13.
This was quite literal in the case of William Jackaway, a veteran of the American Civil War, born in 1840, who in April 1941, at age-100, let it be known he was ready to fight Hitler “any time, any style, anywhere. … Hitler is a bag of wind. I’ve got no use for him.” Jackaway said he was prepared to “pick up a gun … to keep the American flag flying”.
David Lewis (1976), The Public Image of Henry Ford: An American Folk Hero and His Company, p. 270.
Gary Fine and Terence McDonnell, ‘Erasing the Brown Scare: Referential Afterlife and the Power of Memory Templates’ (2007), Social Problems.
From a 2023 perspective, the “progressive” New Deal being supported by “populists” and being particularly popular in the segregated South might seem strange, but the former Confederate States were a Democratic stronghold until the 1960s. The pouring of federal money into State governments that were staffed by white civil servants, into Social Security and public housing, into public works like rural electrification, and into supporting businesses, particularly farms, all dominated by white Americans, was received very well in States that, through legal chicanery and outright terror, prevented black Americans from voting. The labour unions, especially in the North, were arguably the institutions that did best from the New Deal, and they were also white-dominated, if not exclusive. This had the twin effect of excluding black Americans from closed shops and raising minimum wages in many industries beyond what employers were prepared to pay for black employees. This is not to say black Americans gained nothing from the New Deal—the fact that there were gains for black Americans is what turned some early supporters against FDR, though not against the New Deal per se (the segregationists wanted the parts that benefited black Americans scaled back or eliminated.) It is to say that the steps toward economic empowerment of black Americans under the New Deal were incidental to its architects intentions, and this more positive legacy sits alongside the fact the New Deal also empowered the entrenched social and political structures of white supremacism. More broadly, the Democratic Party leadership and its intellectual supporters were the vanguard of the Progressive movement, which in the early part of the twentieth century was the bastion of eugenics and beliefs about “racial health”. The Progressives, relying on Science, believed that improving labour conditions, increasing working-class wages, votes for women, sterilising the mentally “unfit”, and aborting black babies all went together as a package to push History in a better direction. The Christian conservatives who objected to eugenics and other measures to decrease the black population were denigrated by intellectuals and high-minded philanthropists as “reactionaries” clinging to unscientific superstitions about the universal equality of humans.
For details, see: Mark Riebling (2015), Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler.
Wayne S. Cole (1953), America First: The Battle Against Intervention 1940-1941, chapter eight.
Fine and McDonnell, ‘Erasing the Brown Scare’.
Starting with All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), anti-war themes—above all “disillusionment”—began to pervade American films, even those not directly about war. The changing sentiment at the very end of was motivated by the rise of the Nazis and the fact that Hollywood had a “large colony of European émigrés, many of them Jewish”, but by then “an island of concern … in a sea of American apathy and isolationism”. Interestingly, one effect of this was Tinseltown reassessing the Great War: Sergeant York (1941) is “a masterful piece of propaganda”, starring Gary Cooper as a “citizen soldier” from Tennessee who “stands in for America” by overcoming his doubts and deciding it is right to fight. See: Forgotten Victory, pp. 13-14.
Elliott Roosevelt (1950), F.D.R.: His Personal Letters—Volume 2, p. 1,048.
Marshall was in many ways true to the spirit, if not the letter, of the first high-profile “investigative journalist”, Egon Kisch, an Austrian subject styling himself “the raging reporter”, an apparently cynical, omnidirectional iconoclast, who was in reality a Soviet agent. Even without direct manipulation, investigative reporters are revealed with an alarming frequency—especially in this era of fewer editors to constrain them—to be credulous fools, with a weakness for conspiracy theories and hostile foreign despotisms. Seymour Hersh is the best contemporary example.
The Communists had been portraying American interventionists as British spies and avaricious capitalist arms dealers. After Operation BARBAROSSA began, the CPUSA publications and front groups declared the AFC to be a creature of Hitler’s intelligence services, without any acknowledgement that, if this was true, it had been true the day before when the CPUSA stood arm-in-arm with the AFCers.
Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin (1999), The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, p. 279.
The Sword and the Shield, pp. 104-18.
HUAC existed as a Special Committee requiring intermittent renewal between 1938 and 1945 when, because of its perceived success against Nazism, it became a Permanent Standing Committee.
There had been earlier anti-Nazi organisations formed, the best-known and to be the most influential, the “Friends of Democracy”, which was later joined in a network of similar organisations. Friends was formed in 1937 by a Unitarian minister, Leon Milton Birkhead, in 1937, to monitor and expose—through publishing pamphlets, holding lectures, and using radio—the activities of both Nazis and Communists in America, describing itself as “a non-partisan, non-sectarian, non-profit, anti-totalitarian propaganda agency”. Among the prominent members of the Friends were: the liberal philosopher John Dewey, the German novelist Thomas Mann, and the American detective novelist and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) activist Rex Stout.
The Mayor of New York, Fiorello LaGuardia, was criticised for allowing the Bund’s rally, but responded: “If we are for free speech, we have to be for free speech for everybody, and that includes Nazis”. A notable group to take the same view was the American Jewish Committee.
Kuhn—an autoworker at one of Henry Ford’s factories—founded the Bund in 1935 after its predecessor, the Friends of a New Germany, unravelled in the wake of the deportation of its leader, Heinz Spanknöbel, for being an unregistered agent of the Nazi government.
D. A. Saunders (1939, April), ‘The Dies Committee: First Phase’, The Public Opinion Quarterly.
Bradley Hart (2018), Hitler’s American Friends: The Third Reich’s Supporters in the United States, chapter two.
Pelley’s Silvershirts dropped below 5,000 members in 1939, and steadily declined until extinction in late 1940. In the Legion’s last year, Pelley forged ties with the Ku Klux Klan and particularly tight relations with the Bund, which was (probably, fractionally) larger than Pelley’s Legion. Doubtless, Pelley was also motivated by his knowledge of how closely the Bund was tied to the Third Reich. (This was not to work out very well as the Bund’s fortunes were declining simultaneously.)
Hitler’s American Friends, chapter two.
Hitler’s American Friends, chapter two.
Hitler’s American Friends, chapter two.
Robert Mann (2010), Wartime Dissent in America: A History and Anthology, p. 90.
Hitler’s American Friends, chapter two.
Laski was chairman of the British Labour Party from 1945-46, and had been for some time the most senior Soviet loyalist in the party. Laski was involved in the 1930s British “Popular Front”, the Soviet effort to defeat the Conservative government through a coalition of the “Independent Labour Party” and the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).
Fine and McDonnell, ‘Erasing the Brown Scare’.
Scott Beekman (2005), William Dudley Pelley: A Life in Right-Wing Extremism and the Occult, p. 124.
Saunders, ‘The Dies Committee: First Phase’.
Daniel Inouye, Gary Okihiro, and Brian Niiya (1993), Encyclopedia of Japanese American History: An A-to-Z Reference from 1868 to the Present, p. 129.
Peter Irons (1983), Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese-American Internment Cases, pp. 6-7.
The Supreme Court, in a December 1944 decision, Korematsu v. United States, ruled in the majority that Fred Korematsu—who had refused to leave a West Coast exclusion zone and sued the government under the Fifth Amendment—”was not excluded from the Military Area because of hostility to him or his race”, but for defensible military reasons by proper authorities. The dissenters all pointed to the racial aspect in the decision to argue it was invalid. Justice Robert Jackson made a more fundamental point, namely that in “rationaliz[ing] such an order to show that it conforms to the Constitution”, rather than simply accepting that it was an exigent measure taken in the midst of a total war that the Court should not be getting involved in, “the Court [had] for all time” instantiated the precedent that the State can transplant American citizens (and, in his view, “validated the principle of racial discrimination in criminal procedure”). “The principle then lies about like a loaded weapon, ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need. … A military commander may overstep the bounds of constitutionality, and it is an incident. But if we review and approve, that passing incident becomes the doctrine of the Constitution.”
Steven Remy (2021), Adolf Hitler: A Reference Guide to His Life and Works, p. 84.
United States Congress (1940), Investigation of Un-American Propaganda Activities in the United States, p. 64.
Investigation of Un-American Propaganda Activities in the United States, pp. 1,465-66.
Arnie Bernstein (2013), Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund, pp. 281-82.
Swastika Nation, p. 98.
Leland Bell (1970, December), ‘The Failure of Nazism in America: The German American Bund, 1936-1941’, Political Science Quarterly.
Swastika Nation, p. 275.
Bell, ‘The Failure of Nazism in America’.
Bell, ‘The Failure of Nazism in America’.
Swastika Nation, p. 278.
Bell, ‘The Failure of Nazism in America’.
Wyn Craig Wade (1987), The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America, p. 273.
D. J. Mulloy (2021), Years of Rage: White Supremacy in the United States from the Klan to the Alt-Right, p. 35.
Francis Biddle (1962), In Brief Authority, p. 248.
R.W. Steele (1999), Free Speech in the Good War, pp. 43-45.
The story at various levels can be told of actors O. Z. Whitehead, Edward Everett Horton, Katharine Cornell, Fred MacMurray, Orson Welles, and Gary Cooper, though none were so open or prominent as Gish, so did not engender the same reaction. See: Gary Fine and Rashida Shaw (2006, November), ‘An Isolationist Blacklist? Lillian Gish and the America First Committee’, Theatre Survey.
Glenn Hastedt and Steven Guerrier [eds.] (2010), Spies, Wiretaps, and Secret Operations: An Encyclopedia of American Espionage, p. 481.
Julian Pleasants (2000), Buncombe Bob: The Life and Times of Robert Rice Reynolds, p. 174.
Fine and McDonnell, ‘Erasing the Brown Scare’.
Wartime Dissent in America, p. 89.
Fine and McDonnell, ‘Erasing the Brown Scare’.
Fine and McDonnell, ‘Erasing the Brown Scare’.
Fine and McDonnell, ‘Erasing the Brown Scare’.
In Brief Authority, p. 238.
Wartime Dissent in America, p. 89.
Hitler’s American Friends, chapter two.
Wartime Dissent in America, p. 90.
Vonsiatsky had been evacuated from Crimea with the remnant of the Volunteer Army (“the Whites”), led by General Pyotr Wrangel, in November 1920. Despite a lot of myth-making over the years—a lot of it by the Soviets—there is essentially no direct connection between the German Nazis and the Russian “White Movement”, the latter of which was set up to combat the German-sponsored Bolsheviks and went into exile in France and Jugoslavija. The Russian extreme-Right figures involved with the Nazis up to 1923 were the German collaborators, most of them Baltic Germans or Ukrainians, whose separatist aspirations and German orientation were the exact opposite of the “Whites’” All-Russian stance and Allied orientation. There were some Russian émigrés who began to think in the 1930s that Hitler was the way to remove Stalin and get home. The most prestigious living figure among the “Whites”, General Anton Denikin, began a public campaign in 1932—which he maintained right through BARBAROSSA—to denounce any collaboration with the Nazis as a betrayal of the Motherland. Hence Denikin’s disgusted reaction when approached by Andrey Vlasov, the head of the German-sponsored “Russian Liberation Army” (ROA). Even the ROA case is more complicated than most “collaborator” stories: the group had no involvement in the Holocaust—Vlasov’s overlap with the Nazis their opposition to the Soviet Union—and in May 1945 the ROA joined the anti-Nazi Prague uprising, not that it did Vlasov any good: he was apprehended by Stalin’s secret police, tortured for about a year, and hanged (interestingly, not shot, one of the last such Soviet “executions”) in August 1946.
The operation was named for Francis Daniel Pastorius, the organiser of the first German settlement in the U.S. in August 1683, which consisted of radical Protestants—Mennonites, Pietists, and Quakers—in Pennsylvania.
Marouf Hasian (2003), ‘Franklin D. Roosevelt, Wartime Anxieties, and the Saboteurs’ Case’, Rhetoric and Public Affairs.
Hasian, ‘Franklin D. Roosevelt, Wartime Anxieties, and the Saboteurs’ Case’.
Dasch was given 30 years in prison and Burger sentenced to life. In 1948, the duo were released on condition of deportation to the Western-occupied zone of Germany. Dasch died in 1992 and Burger in 1975.
The unanimous Court verdict in Ex parte Quirin did not use the term but effectively ruled that the PASTORIUS operatives were hostis humani generis (enemies of all mankind), no better than pirates, who under the traditional laws and customs of war were to be dealt with by military means, including battlefield executions; mutatis mutandis, a trial under military jurisdiction was just that.
Hasian, ‘Franklin D. Roosevelt, Wartime Anxieties, and the Saboteurs’ Case’.
The scale of the resources the PASTORIUS teams had with them makes it clear the death toll from their operations would have been very high, and it is well-documented that further infiltrations were in the works, only aborted because PASTORIUS so publicly failed. One of the Nazi operatives to be sent in these follow-on missions was John Codd, an Irish republican. Codd was deployed to Europe as part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and captured by the Germans in 1940. Defecting in prison, the first idea the Nazis had for Codd was that he would raise an “Irish Brigade” and be taken back to Ireland in a U-Boat to lead a rebellion, a plan consciously modelled on what the Kaiser did with Roger Casement and the Easter Rising. See: Terence O’Reilly (2008), Hitler’s Irishmen, pp. 64, 94.
Gimpel was chosen at the last minute, replacing John Codd, one of the many Irish republicans who supported the Nazi cause. Codd had been set to take part in one of the follow-on missions that were called off because Operation PASTORIUS failed.
David Kahn (1978), Hitler’s Spies: German Military Intelligence in World War II, p. 17.
Fine and McDonnell, ‘Erasing the Brown Scare’.
Wartime Dissent in America, pp. 91-92.
The Nazi Party was named as a “co-conspirator” with those indicted in the Great Sedition Trial, and in court in 1944 the prosecution contended that Hitler had personally selected the positions that the seditionists on trial would hold in an occupation government after a Nazi conquest of America. See: Ralph Engelman and Carey Shenkman (2022), A Century of Repression: The Espionage Act and Freedom of the Press, chapter three.
As Biddle explained later, legally speaking, the issue “was not a question of a man’s right to his own opinion, but of whether the government should take steps to prevent a [domestic propaganda] campaign seeking [U.S.] defeat, apparently well organized and springing from a central direction”. See: In Brief Authority, p. 236.
D.J. Mulloy (2018), Enemies of the State: The Radical Right in America from FDR to Trump, p. 23.
Fine and McDonnell, ‘Erasing the Brown Scare’.
Fine and McDonnell, ‘Erasing the Brown Scare’.
Enemies of the State, p. 23.
Kevin P. Spicer and Rebecca Carter-Chand [eds.] (2022), Religion, Ethnonationalism, and Antisemitism in the Era of the Two World Wars, p. 61
Enemies of the State, p. 23.
Fine and McDonnell, ‘Erasing the Brown Scare’.
Wartime Dissent in America, p. 92.
In Brief Authority, p. 242.
Arthur Sears Henning, ‘Plot for Nazi Rule Charged; U.S. Indicts 30’, Chicago Tribune, 4 January 1944, cited in: Fine and McDonnell, ‘Erasing the Brown Scare’.
Fine and McDonnell, ‘Erasing the Brown Scare’.
Wartime Dissent in America, p. 92.
Stephen M. Feldman (2008), Free Expression and Democracy in America: A History, p. 427.
My own view is that the “Business Plot” was real: the doubts that linger over it are because no prosecutions were ever brought, so the accusations were never tested and the State never undertook a discovery process, meaning the evidence we have is very scanty. The Plot was revealed in November 1934 by General Smedley Butler, who said the conspiracy’s leaders had tried to recruit him in the summer of 1933, based inter alia on his prior support for the “Bonus Army”, and their plan, explicitly modelled on Mussolini, was to stage a fascist “March on Washington” in late 1935. Smedley went public with this before the House of Representatives’ McCormack-Dickstein Committee, formally known as the Special Committee on Un-American Activities Authorized to Investigate Nazi Propaganda and Certain Other Propaganda Activities, which was the Committee that HUAC would be based upon. The only real investigation of the Business Plot that took place contemporaneously was by this pre-HUAC Congressional body, one of whose chairmen, Samuel Dickstein (D-NY), was a Soviet spy, so it is possible that the information was polluted, since one of Dickstein’s key roles for the NKVD was to play up the domestic danger to the U.S. from fascists and Nazis, and to conceal the Communist threat.
In Brief Authority, p. 243.
The issue of how law applies during a war is a much broader topic, with the division being broadly between those who insist that law remains paramount and those who take the Classical view that Inter arma enim silent leges (During [clashes of] arms, the laws fall silent). In an American context, the main legal-political battles over this go back to the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln suspending law and democracy in order to save law and democracy. When the Confederate rebellion erupted, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and inter alia essentially occupied the “Border States” with federal troops, ordering mass arrests of known Confederate sympathisers and other agitators against the government, including—notably in Maryland—those in the local government. One of those arrested in Maryland, the slaver John Merryman, appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled in Ex parte Merryman (June 1861) that Lincoln had no authority to do this; the right rested with the legislature (Congressional suspension of habeas corpus only became law in March 1863). Lincoln simply ignored the decision, which was clearly “illegal”, and he was derided as a “tyrant”. The U.S. tradition on this subject can be seen as bifurcating from this point. On the one side, the “Lost Cause” mythology would cast these Union violations of legal technicalities as outrages that justified the Confederate attempt to destroy the entire U.S. legal-political system—a wilful reversal of cause and effect, to be sure, but such are myths. On the other side, Lincoln was lauded for doing what needed to be done during the emergency, rescuing the Union so that there was a law to deal with the anomalies after the emergency had passed, notably in Ex parte Milligan (1866).
Fine and McDonnell, ‘Erasing the Brown Scare’.
Tom Holland (2019), Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, pp. 599-600.
I do not want to link to such sites here, but lamentations for Pelley by extreme-Right activists and commentators—and even a whole book on the subject—are easily enough found. Pro-Nazi and Holocaust denialist sources are essentially the only ones who do remember Pelley. Interestingly, when Pelley and the McWilliams trial were recently, briefly, rediscovered by the American mainstream, in the context of the 6 January 2021 rebellion on Capitol Hill, it was the American Left drawing attention (approvingly) to the precedent of the Great Sedition Trial. The Rightist sympathisers with the putsch attempt seem to have come to their view that those prosecuted are “political prisoners” independent of any meditation on Pelley’s case. Only in some specialist corners of law and history departments is any disinterested focus still given to Pelley and McWilliams.
Beekman, William Dudley Pelley, p. 123.
Beekman, William Dudley Pelley, p. 123.
The quote is from Donald Ritchie, a former Senate historian. Ritchie is no friend of Joseph McCarthy’s—to the contrary—and thus what Ritche writes is as a sheer matter of fact, not an attempt to defend McCarthy. See: Larry Tye (2020), Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy, p. 299.
Leo P. Ribuffo (1983), The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right From the Great Depression to the Cold War.
Fine and McDonnell, ‘Erasing the Brown Scare’.
Free Expression and Democracy in America, p. 427.
One of the high-profile deportation cases in the Roosevelt administration was a non-Nazi: Harry Bridges, a union leader and CPUSA operative. Bridges’ deportation proceedings (the second time) brought under the Smith Act in 1941 were derailed when anti-Communist actions were virtually called off because of FDR’s post-BARBAROSSA alliance with the Soviet Union, and ultimately the Supreme Court intervened to save Bridges in 1945, after getting itself hideously tangled on the definition of “affiliation” when it came to Bridges’ relationship with the Communist Party. Later, after it became clear Bridges had lied about never being a CPUSA member, a renewed effort to deport him was launched based on his perjury; it also failed.
Gary Fine, ‘The Construction of Historical Equivalence: Weighing the Red and Brown Scares’ (2007), Symbolic Interaction.
Fine, ‘The Construction of Historical Equivalence’.
Fine, ‘The Construction of Historical Equivalence’.
John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, Alexander Vassiliev (2009), Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, p. xv.
Fine, ‘The Construction of Historical Equivalence’.
An exploration of this dynamic is in Cole’s America First.
Fine and McDonnell, ‘Erasing the Brown Scare’.
Whittaker Chambers (1952), Witness, chapter thirteen.